Adjudicating Between World-views: Part 7 – Morality


The third question which will be assessed in this series about adjudicating world-views is that of morality. This may be a bit confusing for those who have not approached this issue much, so I’d suggest skimming over the bulk of the comments if they seem confusing and focus on the summary which is contained in the last paragraph of each section.

ATHEISM: On the atheistic view there are many different views of what morality is and where it comes from. But, for the sake of simplicity and briefness, I want to look at one aspect of the question which I think is one of the most important and telling.

Morality, in the end, is defined by it’s origin – the source of morality. But even more so, the primary source of reality plays the ultimate role in what morality looks like – on any view. Thus we’ll look at morality with this element in focus.

First, let’s ask a question: are there any moral affirmations which are absolute? I think a few could be found. One, for example, is that it is always wrong to kill an innocent child. Another would be that it is always wrong to torture an innocent child. Right? There are two potential answers to that question: (a) either there aren’t any absolute moral affirmations or (b) there are. Let’s look at the first answer.

Human experience is one way of trying to shut this answer down. The claim is that morality has no absolutes. But, what does our experience tell us? Could anyone really live as if there were no moral absolutes? What if murder, rape, abuse, disrespect, etc. were all non-moral issues? Could a society live like that? Of course not.

There are certain moral foundations that must be upheld in order for any life or group to at least survive or continue to live (whether our survival is itself a good thing is another issue). One of those is that life – in some sense – must have some sort of value. Otherwise, as the atheistic philosopher Camus said – which was the most pertinent question to his own mind – “Why not commit suicide?…” Why not? Life itself must have something to it, right?

A perhaps even more fundamental insight is that it is a moral absolute to have some sort of moral system at all! Just imagine what a life or society without any strict moral affirmations would look like? It would be worse than any civilization that has yet to come. In fact, it would be unlivable. That’s what I see as an issue with the idea that morality doesn’t even exist at all – it would be unlivable. It would be like playing a chess game without any rules – what do you think that would look like?

Thus, as I see it, the claim that moral absolutes do not exist fails two criteria of adjudicating a world-view’s answer to these questions: Empirical adequacy (our moral intuitions tells us that there are absolutes like the one’s I have stated) and experiential relevance (it would be an unlivable concept).

What if moral absolutes do exist? The problem here is that on atheism everything in the universe has evolved or has arrived by chance or random mechanisms. Thus, whatever the source of morality is (social conventions, biological workings, rational conventions, pragmatic conventions, intuitive conventions, etc.) it could have been different. If there was no purpose or goal behind the universe coming into existence, then it would follow that if we were to roll back the cosmic clock and let the universe evolve again we would end up with a completely different outcome. It may be that moral absolutes would not even exist in this alternate reality and if they did then these absolutes would be constituted by a differing set of moral laws! So there’s nothing – other than physical laws and determined causal chains – that determine what morality is. So, (a) moral absolutes wouldn’t be moral absolutes after-all, and (b) why adhere to what physical laws have determined to be moral? There’s nothing there to give us a compulsion to live morally [there’s no ultimate accountability].

To sum it all up, atheism has two choices: moral absolutes exist or they do not. (a) First, atheism cannot supply a metaphysical ground for moral absolutes because everything could have be otherwise –rewind the cosmos, let it go again and we’ll have something entirely different – morality may not even show up on the scene! If it does, the moral laws may be completely different. There’s nothing on atheism that can uphold an unchanging set of moral rules. We also have no strong reasons to comply with the moral standard since there is no ultimate accountability. (b) Secondly, if moral absolute do not exist, it would be unlivable and contrary to what our moral intuitions are telling us.

MONISM: We’ve done most of our work in the previous section. If a monistic view posits that moral absolutes do not exist, then we get the same issues as above. But, I’ve never seen any monistic view which clearly affirms that (but there may be one somewhere).

The relevant question then is can monism supply us with a ground for a framework of absolute morality? I would contest that it cannot. Why?

One reason is that the monistic god is not a person but a force or an energy. Moral imperatives (moral “oughts”) are, when you think of it, moral commands. Morality commands us to do or not do certain things. For instance, morality commands us to refrain from torturing innocent children. The only way I can see a command coming about is from a commander. In other words, a personal being. Monism cannot supply this since it doesn’t affirm a person but an impersonal energy.

One other reason I see monism as failing to answer the idea that there are moral absolutes is that most forms of monism affirm that we are all part of God. Not that we are like God or made in his image – like a theist would affirm – but that we are actually part of God. The problem here is that if people are able to be evil or perform evil acts then that means God is able to be evil as well. Why would anyone want to worship a God who isn’t intrinsically and by his own nature good? Even beyond this, it means that if a person performs an evil act – so did God! I think there’s a clear issue with that.

One last thing. Buddhism teaches that all dualisms are merely illusions. In other words, all distinctions are illusory. In this view, it may seem to us that we are different and separate people, but Buddhism affirms that this distinction is merely an illusion and that we are all really just one thing.

What this does to morality is make moral distinctions become illusory. Thus, on at Buddhism, you cannot have moral absolutes since you cannot have moral distinctions! There isn’t any good or evil in reality. Good and evil are mere illusions. I’m not sure whether other monistic traditions or religions affirm this as well, but Buddhism is at least one.

To sum it up, monism cannot supply us a moral commander, it creates for itself the inescapable idea that whatever actions or thoughts we take/have are those of God too – including evil and imperfection and finally – at least Buddhism – gets itself stuck in affirming that all distinctions are illusory – which includes moral distinctions. In other words, morality is really an illusion.

THEISM: Every form of theism that I have come across affirms moral absolutes. And they all posit that God, in some way, is the source of moral absolutes. Let’s look at some of the issues that atheism and monism had and whether or not theism can overcome those.

On theism, is the cause of the universe able to give the universe a purpose? If we were to turn back the clock and “re-start” the universe, could it have arisen with the same physical laws and moral laws? Yes, because a being with free-will is behind the causation of the universe, thus, it can choose to implement rules which could be grounded in either it’s choice or unchanging nature.

Is there a reason to adhere to the moral rules? Yes, on two basic grounds. (a) We are held accountable by God for our moral choices and there are consequences for not adhering to them. (b) We also could be wanting to adhere to the moral standard because they flow from God Himself – the source of all goodness and perfection.

Is this being a personal being able to implement moral commands (imperatives)? Yes, or course. Theism affirms that God is an intelligent, free and moral being. A supreme commander, if you will.

Are people separate and distinct from God? Yes, people are not part of God, but are made as distinct, free, and moral agents.

On theism, are there real distinctions between things? Yes. [As a side note, I think that only the multi-personal nature of the Christian God can ground and explain this concept well, as God is himself existing with a distinctiveness in His person-hood (yet unified in His nature and essence). Other views which posit that God is only one person I think would struggle to explain how diversity and distinctions could flow from God’s nature or image.]

Thus, in summary, (a) theism overcomes all the issues which atheism and monism cannot avoid, and also gives us (b) a ground for moral absolutes and (c) some reasons to adhere to it. 

That is our look at morality. Next time we’ll look at the question of destiny and see what the world-views have to say on that issue.


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