The Question of Relative Morality
This subject, I know, will be a giant headache to cover in detail but it is one I believe needs to be addressed in my ongoing discussion with Kate . Morality is an area of conversation between atheists and theists where much misrepresentation and miscommunication takes place. For a good reference on this subject on the internet, as well as a guide to how I would argue on morality if I were half this brilliant, I suggest reading posts on the subject at my friend Dan Finke’s philosophy blog, Camels With Hammers. Here are a few relevant posts from him. I also hope that Dan will make a guest appearance to point out some of his other musings on the subject.
As I previously alluded, this is not going to be a one post discussion. Morality is likely the most talked about subject in the world of philosophy, and I feel like a child among giants when I start to contemplate it. With a hat tip to my own shortcomings,and knowing that for many of you this will be a TL;DR post, here are my thoughts.
Morality As An Unarguably Relative Construct
That Christians continue to harp on about how morality is relative to atheists and is more similar to a divine or natural law for the theist is evidence enough that this issue is misunderstood by at least one party involved. My two cents on the subject is that morality is not a fixed principle. If you know a lawyer or a judge you could surely hear stories that would break your heart of “black and white” laws being applied to the most middling of “gray” circumstances. That is why our legal system is designed to allow “self-defense”, for example.
An abortion clinic bomber has a very different construct of morality or justice as your average Catholic, whose moral construct itself is quite different from a pro-choice feminist. To make an argument that any one of those people is by necessity correct is to imply that your particular moral construct is the only correct one. Though I certainly would argue that one of them is particularly reprehensible, I can see the moral argument for the other two.
All moral decisions can be accused of being moral or immoral based on the scope of how we weigh the benefits and consequences. Each benefit, each consequence, each affected individual person or group is afforded a different yet quantifiable weight in a moral judgment. How groups or individuals will judge the relative morality of any singular or set of decisions will therefor always be relative to the weight assigned to each variable. To claim that there is a divine or natural law which tells you how much weight each involved party should be afforded is specious.
That societies require a religion to inform or mold this moral construct is ridiculous. That in any moral circumstance, one would surely weigh not just their own interests, but that of their immediate family, their close friends, their community, or any other group that that person can be reasonably be expected to foresee being affected is certainly a given. Some of these weights are selfish, some are selfless, some lie between. Morality is the direct consequence of being a social species, and this holds true even among the “lesser” species. That religion, as a pseudo-philosophical construct is very specifically concerned with morality is not surprising. Religions of all stripes take rational moral constructs and pepper them with additional prohibitions and consequences that are hardly necessary for that moral principal to stand or fall on it own merit. No religion coined the Golden Rule, for example. It is a logical conclusion of a social species. That religion redundantly carves it in stone this inevitable social construct is moot.
Every group of people, from Fundamental Christian to militant liberal is going to have their own concept of an ideal moral decision, yet one very rarely presents itself.
How To Best Understand Relative Morality
If we can think of any decision in terms of a Venn Diagram, where the interests of multiple parties are at stake, each decision no matter how simple will have both positive and negative repercussions. How we weigh each parties stake is how we describe the possible choices as moral or immoral. Where a religious moral construct differs from a secular one is in the simplifying of variables….sort of. Here are two Venn Diagrams for a pet subject of mine, gay marriage, one from a simplified Christian view, the other from a simplified “Liberal” view.
In the example, this not only informs the persons morality paradigm on the issue of gay marriage, but also the way that person views the morality of opposing views. The simplicity of the religious prism comes in that all the factors affecting the secular decision are filtered through the subjects perception of their religious instruction. In the secularist’s Venn, those ideas lumped under “Bible” and “WWJD” in the religious Venn likely find themselves manifest in the “Cultural Views” circle. I don’t doubt that many other factors exist for both the Christian and the secularist, my point is just that by the expanding and contracting of weight to each concept involved, the religious viewpoint simplifies the decision.
In my example, weighing factors equally will always result in a more morally ambiguous decision for the party making that decision. In contrast, the additional or retracted weight of factors informing others decisions will result in that decision being deemed less moral by third parties. All weights counted by both the Christian and the secularist can be said to be subject to cognitive bias, the thinkers perception or understanding of the factors in consideration. With so many factors in play, it is impossible to deduce that morality is anything but a relative construct; and anyone making any moral indictment is in some sense a relativist. A fundamental Christian Relativist, you say? How could that be?
Even the bible understands the relativism of morality, Leviticus 25:39-55 sets out separate rules for the treatment of slaves/servants based on whether they are Israelites or aliens. In doing this, God is clearly in agreement that some people’s interests get more weight than others, and to what degree their rights are weighted. Obviously in God’s mind, the slave/servant owners interests are paramount, followed by the interests of a Jewish servant, followed by a non-Jewish slave. Yet a Christian today would likely not consider this moral judgment to be moral at all. They have altered the weight afforded to biblical views and societal views/personal views to account for the moral detestability of slavery in our modern culture. By doing so, are they not becoming moral relativists?
Case Studies: Deja-Vu from University
To illustrate two cases where biblical morality can only bring us so far down the road of a strictly universal morality, I will pull from two areas where morality is in my mind quite ambiguous. The first is in cases of animal companionship.
The Curious Case of “Mittens”
Mittens is a cute and cuddly kitten, and his owner is dismayed when Mittens slips out the front door and is swiftly hit by a car. His owner takes him to the vet, who tells him that Mittens is suffering terribly, but could survive to lead a life of constant but reduced pain if he has a $4000 surgery. The other option is to euthanize poor Mittens and save him a lifetime of anguish. What is the truly moral course in this situation? Euthanasia? Surgery with reduced life quality? I bet I could find someone, admittedly not informed by the bible, who would argue that the very first sentence of our story is immoral, as claiming ownership of an animal is wrong in and of itself.
So if we had no bible with which to inform our morality, which choice would be considered the most moral? Even if we are lovers of animals, both euthanizing and treating the animal have their merits. To claim that without a biblical moral supremacy the owner would always choose to just rename the kitten “Gimpy” and delight in it’s daily suffering is ridiculous. Yet that is exactly the ad absurdum result of morality being only borne of the bible.
The answer to the moral question is that depending on which circle in the Venn diagram is afforded the most weight, each of these options is perfectly moral. It doesn’t have to be fictional kittens though, we have ample evidence for moral relativism in the news today.
One could strongly argue that a soldier in Afghanistan who shoots an unarmed enemy combatant who is going to die a slow and painful death is exercising a moral duty. If the dying man is going to suffer immensely on the way to a treatment that he certainly has no chance of surviving to receive, what is the morally reasonable course of action? This very question came before a military court here in Canada quite recently. Our military laws do not allow for a defense of “mercy killing” even if the person injured begs to die.
So in both these cases, our Venn Diagram will look the same. The circles may expand or contract in regards to the weight of each factor, and in fact the specifics of each factor will be relative to the way in which each person perceives these overarching factors. One person may consider the statement “It is amoral to take animals as property” as one of the “Compassion” set, and yet another person may not consider this statement at all. So for both ethical considerations above, the Venn Diagram will look roughly similar with the circles being expanded and contacted to the persons taste; yet the specifics of each circle may vary widely from person to person.
Is Morality a Religious Construct? Or, Why It Is So Important That Religion Owns Morality.
Several studies on social species point to the fact that morality is a social rather than religious construct. Unless one desires to insist that dogs and chimpanzees have a religion that we are unaware of, we should deduce that morality exists outside the confines of a religiously informed existence.
From Scientific American Mind (Marcch 2010), The Ethical Dog, by MARC BEKOFF and Jessica Pierce
Morality, as we define it in our book Wild Justice, is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. These behaviors, including altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness, are readily evident in the egalitarian way wolves and coyotes play with one another. Canids (animals in the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play, which teaches pups the rules of social engagement that allow their societies to succeed.
So dogs, a social species, exhibit traits that could be considered as a group to be “morality”. The authors of that article are both scientists who have performed and analyzed studies on dog behavior. If canids have a basic moral code within their pack system, then in the strict Christian view, they must also have a religion informing it.
What about our closer cousins, the chimpanzees?
From a peer reviewed paper,Psychological Realism, Morality, and Chimpanzees by David Harnden-Warwick, 1997.
The parsimonious consideration of research into food
sharing among chimpanzees suggests that the type of social regulation
found among our closest genetic relatives can best be
understood as a form of morality. Morality is here defined from a
naturalistic perspective as a system in which self-aware individuals
interact through socially prescribed, psychologically realistic rules
of conduct which provide these individuals with an awareness of
how one ought to behave. The empirical markers of morality
within chimpanzee communities and the traditional moral traits
to which they correspond are (1) self-awareness/agency; (2) calculated
reciprocity/obligation; (3) moralistic aggression/blame; and
Again, in social species it is apparent that a basic concept of altruism and morality is present. So can we safely assume that morality in its simplest sense is common among all species that live in interdependent “tribal” societies? Are there aberrations to the general moral rules within these groups? Most certainly. Is poor moral behavior punished within these groups? Absolutely.
If basic moral rules within tribal societies are therefor natural, then higher order moral decisions are just as easily a product of basic concepts expanded to higher order thinking; like taking my Venn diagram and expanding it from three circles to twenty, or adding many more considerations to each of the factors within the diagram.
The assertion that without religion humans are sociopathic animals is insincere then, as morality is a social construct, the evolutionary descendant of tribal animals.
Why then, would religion place so much interest in a divine moral law that can only be expressed as a religious concept? I believe the answers are twofold.
If all the morality expressed in a religious context can be also expressed as an anthropogenic rule based on the intricacies of tribal life, then the bible loses yet more of its divinely inspired lustre. Moral behaviors are not commonly noticeable among “lower species” and are therefor easily explained away as the constructs of a divine law that is not revealed to all species. I argue that they are the result of higher order thinking and therefor are falsely correlated to divinity since we are the only species that at face value can be known to have either higher order thinking or a God concept. It’s a simple bait and switch of terms, so instead of saying:
We are Moral because of our higher order thinking
Because of our higher order thinking early peoples had a need for a God concept
We are Moral because of a God concept.
The second reason is a bit more sinister. Religion needs to offer a clear disincentive to thinking in the secular heuristic. Religious people constantly cite evolutionary “survival of the fittest” imagery in an attempt to paint secularists as interested in reverting to base instinct and
abandoning higher thinking altogether. Although the logical flaw of this argument has been laid bare time and time again, it continues to be cited by religious people as a positive case for religion. I have asked many a Christian if they would live like an animal if they had no God, with answers of both yes and no. I have mused that many Christians must be highly functioning sociopaths and perhaps I could make a similar correlation to the one they offer for morality. If human morality is an evolutionary construct, then there is no basic moral difference between a religious and a secular person. Both are moral individuals who just happen to make moral decisions differently.
Religion would like nothing more than to have its adherents believe that to leave religion is to leave morality behind. They prey off of the fear that without their crutches man will walk on all fours. This has not been the case for those of us who have left our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. We are social creatures, not just capable but hardwired to consider moral questions in terms beyond our own immediate survival. It is what makes us human, and God has nothing to do with it.