Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Discussion: The Reality of Morality

I found something interesting on the internet recently. It was a blog post on a blog entitled “Matt’s Notepad.” The title of the post was “Same Old, Same Old: Creationist Arguments.” As the title implies, the subject I’m about to talk about has probably been worn through countless times. But I want to discuss it anyway.

See, in the post Matt examined a creationist argument on another blog and argued against it on a point by point basis. Here’s the part that specifically got me thinking:

Another reason that we know that there is a God is the existence of morality.

This argument is so incredibly old and been shot down so many times, that it is simply tiresome to even deal with it. Morality is subjective, it changes over time and from culture to culture. There are certain fundamentals that run through nearly all cultures but those are perfectly explained by a little field of study called evolutionary ethics and morality. Basically it boils down to the fact that to survive certain species (including humans) needed each other to survive. To maintain group cohesion, they quickly had to invent/learn certain social norms (like not killing each other) since the alternative would be to have the group dissolve and get killed by nearby physically superior animals intent on eating their collective livers.


To me, this viewpoint, which is essentially that morality does not exist, represents a sad outlook on life. How depressing would it be to see love as nothing more than a means for reproduction, happiness, joy, and excitement as nothing more than an exploitation of some chemicals designed to keep us alive. Friendship would be seen as a bond created for a better chance at survival. Slavery, theft, torture, murder. That curling in our gut when we think about such things—that would just be our survival instincts kicking in. According to this perspective, there’s no difference between an innocent person and a guilty person who gets away with his or her crimes. If murder was made legal there would no longer be anything wrong with it. That misery that we feel when a cherished person dies, so intense that at first it feels like it can’t possibly be real, that would just be a reinforcement of our survival instincts, our body’s way of reminding us not to let our clan die off.

How can someone who has experienced these emotions, felt the struggle that it sometimes is to do the right thing, and witnessed the wondrousness and inexplicableness of life, strip it down to such a pointless existence? Because, really, what’s the motivation for living when the only goal is survival, an aspiration that, in the end, is both pointless and impossible. The argument could be made that all we can do is enjoy the time we have, but without the existence of love, joy, friendship etc. making the most of life is reduced to manipulating our bodies to release the most high-inducing chemicals that we can with the time we’re given. The way I see it, without the existence of God life is a barren wasteland. Wouldn’t that then mean that, since life is more than a barren wasteland, God does exist? I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. How do you define those things that some atheists would call survival instincts? And I’d love to hear from some atheist readers. What’s your outlook on life? How do you explain morality?

(Images by: sbhland)

9 comments:

JT Norlander said...

Tough questions. Morality can't flux, because God is the center of morality and He doesn't change.
What's my outlook on life? My outlook on life is that God Is Sovereign, Man Is Responsible. We can't just coast through life on our own, but yet at the same time we can't just sit back and let God do all the work, because He won't. Where's the glory for Him in that?
Surival Instincts? (snorts with laughter) If we had any sort of "true survival instincts" we wouldn't have invented guns and nukes. To a point we have them, but I disagree for the most part when people say, "survival instincts". :)

Brandon said...

Hi J.R.

It's tough talking to people when they come off as knowing all...such as the person you quoted who said, "This argument is so incredibly old and been shot down so many times, that it is simply tiresome to even deal with it." If he were a character in a story, he'd be the arrogant, old man, or the cocky young college grad!

The truth is this argument is still highly debated in college philosophy departments to this day, and it certainly has not been shot down! It is an excellent argument. William Lane Craig is a big time Christian philosopher and theologian, and he makes a great case for the Moral argument, among a plethora of other arguments for God's existence. I recommend his podcasts on Itunes...they're FREE!

There are lots of other qualified Christian debaters...and guess what, they always seem to come out on top.

J.R. Parker said...

JT: I definitely agree that God is the center of morality. Without God, objective morality doesn't exist.

Brandon: I guess I should have figured that the topic is still debated. And thanks for telling me about those podcasts. It just kind of struck me, after reading Matt's post, how depressing it must be to disbelieve in morality and purpose.

Adam said...

I agree with J.R.Parker, without God, objective morality doesn't exsit. Awesome and inspiring post! I hope you enjoyed your grad.!

Levi Bendixen said...

Wow, this is interesting to read this today. Actually, today I met with two agnostic boys at the park to talk. We talked about this very subject of morality. Thankfully, they did believe morals exist, and they believed that we should do them to get along with others. Sadly, we didn't come to too many conclusions in the talk, but it was interesting.

Some thoughts: If evolution is true and there is no God, then me murdering my mother is the same as a leaf blowing in the wind.

If morals did come into existence this way, "People do what makes them feel good. The reason you don't steal your neighbor's car is because the end result would be that you wouldn't feel good when you got caught (instinct for survival)." Then the only reason you shouldn't steal the car is because you could get caught and it wouldn't feel good. If you didn't get caught, you would be doing good.
If morals came as a result of people's instinct for survival (You have a higher chance for survival if you don't kill off fellow humans), then where did altruistic motives come from (like giving up your life for someone else)? Obviously it doesn't help your survival if you die for someone else, but yet even most atheists agree that it is a good moral (Dawkins included).
A good question to ask people who don't believe in God but do believe in morals would be: Why? Why should you not kill others? Why shouldn't you hurt people? Why should you let people have rights? Why be kind? Why should you not force your opinions on others (self-refuting btw.)? Why do right or wrong? There isn't any good answer unless it's founded in obey a higher Law-giver, God.

Hope this helps!

J.R. Parker said...

Great thoughts, Levi. I love the line, "If evolution is true and there is no God, then me murdering my mother is the same as a leaf blowing in the wind."

Brandon said...

Hey J.R.

You wrote: It just kind of struck me, after reading Matt's post, how depressing it must be to disbelieve in morality and purpose.

I think that's why our culture is so dark, and so quick to rush into temporary highs (promiscuous sex, drugs, and drunkeness). But I think even the people like Matt, in there heart, don't believe what they say they believe...they are speaking only in ideas and concepts, but in their actual lives they can't live what they believe.

Haha! There are lots of moral relativists, but no practicing ones!

Taylor said...

I recently finished reading "Mere Christianity" (Which, by the way, I highly recommend). In the book C.S. Lewis talks about what he sees as being the difference between mere instinct and cultural tradition and a "moral law."

I think that it is interesting that sometimes our strongest instincts can be contrary to what is moral. For example, if someone is being beat-up by a group of people it is the moral thing to save the person, while your survival instinct is no doubt screaming at you to run away. While it may sound reasonable to assert that morals would emerge through evolution so as to benefit the entire species, I really doubt that many morals are directly related to passing on an individual's genes. For morals to be produced through evolution they must have by definition come from random mutations that favored by natural selection. As Levi pointed out, giving laying down your life for other people is hardly going to result in passing on your genes.

That said, I wonder what other people think about culture producing morals. I have heard people say that murdering and stealing is “wrong” in every culture because they disrupt society and cultures will, in a way, evolve to discourage these habits. What do you think? I do not question that being moral is benefical to everyone, but I personally do not believe that morals are simply a cultural tradition that have been universally developed over time. While morals are passed on from parent to child, I do not believe that morals were simply invented by people many generations ago.

There is some great discussion on this post, thanks by the way. It seems like everyone is recognizing that even an athiest will say that some things are "wrong" and other things are "right." Without the existence of God, such judgements make no sense. If there were no God there would be only "things that are not acceptable in my culture because they are distructive to our population" and other things that are "beneficial to our group survival" rather then “right” and “wrong.”

J.R. Parker said...

Taylor: Sounds like Mere Christianity is a good candidate for the next trip to the library.

I think the "culture creates morals" theory holds even less water than the one Matt described, simply because these cultures would have to first come to the conclusion that something that disrupts culture is "wrong" which, again, has to be based on something.

I talked to someone in person who had read this post whom had some interesting points. For instance, if we evolve simply to survive, eventually we would reach a point where we no longer need to evolve, and we've long since passed that point. We've been granted with way more intelligence than we need to survive in the world.

I think your point that laying our life/well-being on the line for someone else goes against our instinct is a great one. How fitting that the One who is the epitome of laying one's life down for another is also the One that claims to be the origin of all morals.

That was kind of the basis of this post; musing on what it must be like to be an atheist. As Brandon said, there are lots of moral relativists but no practicing ones. Perhaps your dad might have a better idea, but from what I know of psychology, it would make sense that an atheist would separate his/her mind into boxes, one to be opened during normal life, in which they live unconsciously, automatically acknowledging such things as morals, purpose, etc, and another box whenever the topic of God is brought up. It certainly seems like I've observed myself thinking in such a "Box" format.