Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Objective Morality

April 12th, 2011 Posted in General, Philosophy, Religion

I’ve just been listening to the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the subject of morality. I must admit, usually Craig greatly impresses me with his rational argumentation – despite the protestations of people like Dawkins who either don’t understand his arguments, or find them risible. It’s not that I agree with Craig – I don’t (obviously!) – but I do admire his exceptionally broad and deep knowledge and his ability to construct reasonably clear and well-defined arguments to back up his positions. He’s a highly practised debater, of course – it’s basically his profession.

However, in this debate, and (very) much to my surprise, he came off second best. Harris admittedly ignored two-thirds of Craig’s points and seemed to be following his own plan for the entire evening, much to Craig’s dismay – but Harris came over as by far the more level-headed and interesting speaker, as well as making some crucial points. Craig came across as a head-in-the-skies academic who was vociferously defending a crazy, abstract philosophical model for God that I can’t believe any sane human being could ever plausibly agree with. Anyway, it got me thinking, and I thought I’d try an experiment. I know very little about philosophy – a lack that I’m aiming to reverse very soon – but for now, here’s my first musings on what I took from the debate, and where I think the question of objective morality stands.

Absolute objective morality could only come from some framework within the Universe in which it were made as certain as 1+1=2, and hence to say that something is “moral” is as undeniable as any mathematical derivation – I believe this is Craig’s definition. Craig’s vision of God is such an “entity”, but this is nothing more than an abstract philosophical construct – it makes no sense in the real universe, it’s demonstrably not true, and it’s horrendous were it true (why act in the moral manner described by such a god, if the horrors we see on Earth are an example of the actions of that deity’s moral judgements? He could reward you with pain & suffering, thinking them ‘morally just’). And how could we ever ascertain what are the good and morally correct judgements that this entity wants?

The sensible way to approach this is to admit that there is no objective morality – it’s all subjective (based on, e.g., the foundational assumption that suffering is bad and happiness is good – the assumption that Harris makes but doesn’t seem to have the courage to admit is merely a subjective decision pushed back one stage) and that any morality coming from religion is just obeying the subjective decisions of a hypothesised deity, and not some other subjective views. Furthermore, we have no evidence for such a deity, can comprehensibly disprove most such constructions, and have no way of ascertaining what any hypothetical deity would actually want us to do, that is reliable and error correcting.

Demonstrably the religious do not have a source of morality because they are no different to atheists in that sense, and their moral judgements change throughout the centuries in step with (though lagging) the popular moral sentiment. If a deity is just a source of subjective moral judgements than you might be advised to obey its will on pain of suffering, but that doesn’t make the actions you would commit in any sense intrinsically morally righteous or good. It might save you from eternal damnation, but that doesn’t mean that they were intrinsically good – just that they were what pleased the whims of the deity in question. As Harris pointed out – I can just as easily conceive of an evil God as a good one.

Secular humanism gives us a coherent, open and sound framework for morality that religion doesn’t provide, as secular morality is based on objective truths about the Universe instead of fabrications, illusions, abstract hypothetical philosophical constructions and imagined entities. It is based on things that we can see, verify and understand. And hence, is a reliable and unarguable basis for a subjective moral framework whose motives and justifications are transparent and open to question and adaption if new evidence arises. It is flexible, self-correcting and coherent. And, as such, is demonstrably superior to a religiously-based morality in every sense.

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