Thursday, 30 November 2006

I'll Never Be Angry About Relativism

Last week I read a post entitled "Angry Atheists" by Avi Shafran, it got me thinking about the atheist morality question again. I'm not interested in trying to deconstruct all of what he wrote. Most of it is just meaningless self affirmation. However, he does make a claim that I felt is worth a reply, "...there was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves. That, too, was telling - of the truth that atheism, in the end, cannot assign any more meaning to right and wrong than to right and left."

My guess is that most of the more prolific atheists simple ignored Avi's first post on this subject, and that he neglected to do any research on the topic of atheist morality. Otherwise, he would have found that there is a plethora of opinions out there on how one can derive a moral viewpoint without God. In general, these morality systems seem to fall into one of three very broad groups of thought; morality derived from God (or some other place outside of human existence), morality derived from individual rights (absolute individualism), or morality derived from arbitrary social constructs (moral relativism).

The more difficult concept for many people to swallow is that of moral relativism. Even amongst those that claim to support moral relativism, there are certain things that most people consider absolutely wrong, such as murder or rape. As with Avi, when confronted with the notion of complete moral relativism, most people exclaim "but, without some moral absolute, then there's no real morality and anyone can do anything!"

Yes. So what?

Morality is relative. Get over it.

There are no absolutes, there is no "purpose" to life. If that means your life is meaningless, that's your fault not mine. The meaning in my life is my family, my career, and a quest for knowledge. My life is affirmed every time I hold my daughter, kiss my wife, achieve at work, or observe the awesome spectacle of existence. I don't need anything else. Why do you?

According to Avi, atheists are intellectually cornered into "...a place where the very concepts of morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, a worldview in which a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is no less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. (In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former is probably better positioned to impart advantages to the gene pool.) It is a thought so discomfiting to an honest atheist that all it can yield him is fury."

From a tit-for-tat approach to this debate, I could point out that the Old Testament is filled with examples of thieving philandering serial murderers who earn not just forgiveness, but rewards from God, and that therefore this line of argument is perhaps a bad choice for the theist. But, that would just feed into his point about angry atheists. So, instead I'll point out that I'm definitely not furious over this issue. In fact I find it quite exciting. We, all of us, are in control of the world we live in. Not some arbitrary set of rules handed down by a faceless imaginary sky monster. We decide, as a group, what is "right or wrong". Personally, I find this to be far from infuriating, and in fact rather liberating.

There is no evidence for, nor any need for, an outside source (God) for morality. No, the bible doesn't count as evidence. Should anyone be able to bring forward any actual evidence for God, and/or his terminator style enforcement of morality, then I will be happy to reconsider divine absolute morality. In the mean time, I won't hold my breath.

Similarly, moral absolutism based on individual rights, is on equally shaky ground. Proponents of individual moral absolutism suggest that morality can somehow be scientifically qualified, and that individualism itself somehow imparts each of us with a magic bullet of moral self importance. But, placing the root of morality in the individual, is no less arbitrary and imaginary than placing it with God.

We are all individuals, but we are not solitary individuals. We do not exist, nor can we exist in a vacuum. Whether we like it or not, it is necessary for us to interact with other individuals. In these interactions we will not always have the same self interest. I may want a smoke free environment, you may want to smoke. If we are both in an area designated as "public" property, who's need is greater in that situation? Some might argue that given the potential for harm caused by secondhand smoke, that I have a right to a smoke free environment. Others might argue that the smoker should have a right to light-up when they want, and that any law that restricted their right to do so, would constitute coercion and thus would be "morally wrong". Who's right? In our country there is a growing number of people that feel the non-smoker has more rights than the smoker on this issue. But, in many other countries the trend is just the opposite. Ultimately, there is no "absolute" morality on this issue, though I am certain there will be those that disagree.

Take another example; two individuals are lost in a desert, they are two weeks away from any hope of rescue, and there is only enough water for one of them to survive. Given no other information, and assuming that the two individuals are of equal age gender status etc.., what is the right moral course of action? If they share the water, they guarantee that they both die. If one of them keeps the water for themselves, they condemn the other to certain death. More important than what they do is, how do they decide? They will have to come up with a system, a mini social contract, to decide. Perhaps they'll draw lots. But what happens if they can't agree on a system? Neither of them wants to die, if they can't agree peacefully, they'll be forced to fight for the water or die in indecision. It's in neither of their self interests to concede to the other taking the water. To capitulate would be the same as committing suicide. So, is it wrong for them to fight over the water? If one of them dies as a result of the fight, should the victor be considered a murderer?

Those types of struggles are faced by humanity everyday. Without an imaginary friend in the sky to tell us what to do, we must create rules, systems, or "social contracts" to define how we will interact with each other. When we create these rules, not everyone is going to agree with them. It's not in the self interest of those that have agreed to the rules (society) to allow those that disagree with the rules (criminals) to ruin it for everyone else. So society protects itself through laws, and enforces those laws through punishment. If the disagreement escalates, or if large groups disagree, then we get wars. But no matter what, the rules are all still arbitrary constructs of social interaction.

That's it. There's really nothing more to it than that. Who decides the rules? Everyone does, just like Wikipedia, the stock market, or open source code. Do some people have more influence than others? Of course, there will always be individuals that hunger for power and control, and there will always be people that just want to live their life and stay out of the way. In the end, everyone participates in creating the rules, whether they think they do or not, and they always have the choice of not following the rules or attempting to change them.

For those that lack the mental fortitude to grasp the vagueness of such systems, this must be a very scary concept. For those that embrace them, they open up a world of possibilities. But, as long as most people are convinced that there is some kind of magical "right" or "wrong" we will continue to be stuck in the moral stone age with the Avi Shafrans of the world.

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