Absolute morality is obsolete

I don't see any God up here. But it's absolutely breath-taking.

Religious people often take the position that morality derives from some absolute standard, defined by God. The most common atheist reply to this kind of position is: “If you need ultimate eternal consequences to be a good person, you must be a pretty horrible person. Can’t you just be good for the sake of being good?” This reply is completely useless in any debate. I just watched a very interesting talk by Phil Plait on how to communicate opposing arguments. Basically, telling your opponent he is a horrible person is in the vicinity of the worst thing you could possibly do to carry your point across. It can be interpreted very easily as a personal attack and it will write you off as a dick. Here is how I respond to dicks: not very well. Not matter if they are right or not, I can’t help trying to find any opportunity to oppose them. If you are being a dick to me, you are ruining your chances of being taken seriously at this moment. Even if what you say is right. I believe most of us will behave exactly like that as well. We should probably aspire to examine arguments for their own sake, no matter how they are communicated, but this is a very inefficient ideal. Let’s just not be dicks and all that will be averted. You should still watch how Phil Plait phrases all that. He is a much more experienced communicator than I am.

So what may be a better response to the claim that morality is absolute, and communicated to us in holy scripture? Let’s examine the question a little bit further.

There is an age-old question in philosophy upon which I think this debate rests. Are humans fundamentally good or evil? Can we trust humans with their own instincts? The notion of original sin forces the followers of the three big monotheisms to answer that all humans are fundamentally bad.

From here, I could go in many directions. I could argue first that the notion of sin is highly questionable for defining evil. I could also argue that the free decision of Eve to taste the forbidden fruit was not my own decision. Why do I share her responsibility? I could also argue that the Genesis account of human nature cannot (and should not) be taken seriously, but I will not do any of that. These points have been covered in the atheist literature over and over again. By the way, it is a healthy thing for religious people to go and examine the atheist arguments on these questions. Don’t be afraid to read The God Delusion or God is not Great. If you are afraid these books may weaken your faith, see them instead as the best way out there to test the worthiness of your faith.

The point I want to make instead is that if you assume human beings are fundamentally evil, you will probably take the position that a set of absolute rules is necessary to keep them in check. On the other hand, if you don’t assume our behavior is inherently wrong, you are much more likely to trust humankind to evolve peace and harmony through experimentation, deliberation and reason, without the divine. What we think about human nature directly influences the position we take on the need for an absolute moral authority.

So the real question is, are humans fundamentally evil or not? If you believe humans are fundamentally evil, you must necessarily believe that you are yourself fundamentally evil, and that the only thing keeping you from being evil is your religious upbringing or conversion. However, somehow, you still think that being good is preferable to being evil, since you desire the absolute morality provided by God. Where does that preference come from? Does it also come from your religious upbringing or is it some natural human tendency you have been denying?

Here how the christian argument goes. God has not defined your nature (Adam and Eve did, out of their “free will”), but he defines what you should do about it. And because you still have free will, the only way he can truly enforce it is by using some incentive about eternal life. If you do as God says, you go to heaven for eternity to do God knows what (pun intended). If you don’t do as God says, you go to hell. God is nice, he gave us free will. And then he takes it away through coercion. It seems like there are better ways for an omnipotent being to make people be nice to each other. And we know of one.

Let’s now take the naturalistic perspective. How did we, humans, come to prosper as a species? Matt Ridley offers an extraordinary answer to that question: cooperation. In this TED talk, Matt explains in details why cooperation leads to prosperity. One corollary of this fact is that if you don’t cooperate, your only option to take part in the prosperity is to abuse the cooperating citizens. However, if the majority of citizens are abusers, the structure of cooperation falls apart. There exists a threshold above which abuse cannot be tolerated for a cooperating society to work. Any society crossing this threshold will collapse. This stems from the wonderful concept of evolutionary stable strategy.

Scientific collaborations: bringing the world together.

However, our society hasn’t collapsed yet. The logical conclusion is that we must be below this threshold. I don’t know what the threshold actually is, but it must be very low, since everybody with a job in this world is cooperating. You may argue that the reason society hasn’t collapsed yet is because religious morality keeps the non-cooperating people in check. I personally think legislation does that. And anyway, how would you explain the fact that the most prosperous nations in the world are also the most secular?

Note that not all humans need to be fundamentally good in this picture. You only need a sufficient number of them so that cooperation becomes the main mode of operation. In such a system, some form of retaliation for non-cooperating acts is bound to arise since these acts mitigate the cooperation effort. The intrinsic biological diversity of a species also implies that non-cooperating pockets will always emerge at some point. It is a non-sequitur to claim that people in these pockets are closer to our fundamental nature than the rest of society.

Now, how do you make cooperation more efficient? Very, very simple: by not being dicks to each other. We now come full circle: that is the point I was making at the beginning of this post. It is to everybody’s benefit to be nice. Actually, that is probably the most self-serving thing we can do. Imagine that, we get to be selfish and altruistic at the same time!

Do we need an absolute morality for all of this to hold? I don’t think so. People are inherently willing to cooperate, otherwise we would not be as prosperous as we are now. We are biologically programmed to feel pleasure when we do altruistic deeds because it makes us more prosperous, and natural selection favours prosperity, by definition. We enjoy prosperity, and we all appreciate the comfort and opportunities it brings us.

I infer from all this that improving cooperation on the global scale is probably the best way to make a better world.  In this era of global communications, this may be possible. Large projects that cannot be accomplished by one nation alone may be the key to our long term survival. It’s no coincidence that the largest scientific endeavours these days are the result of international cooperation.

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4 Responses to Absolute morality is obsolete

  1. suvayu says:

    You assume certain evolutionary principles that your target audience keeps rejecting time and again. Not sure how you can get around that. :-/

  2. Michel says:

    My target audience are not creationists. You don’t have to be a creationist to believe in original sin. In fact, if you don’t believe in original sin, the whole Jesus thing becomes irrelevant, and the whole doctrine of Christianity falls apart. Catholics for example, accept original sin, but also accept evolution. They recognize the account of Genesis is allegorical, but true. Christians like these are my target audience. And there’s also a little preaching to the choir 😛

  3. Doug says:

    Hey there, just heard about your blog today. Interesting!

    I have a question about this entry. If I understand you correctly, you reject the notion of goodness being set by some external arbiter, a divine being. But how do you define good, except in the absolute sense as from the “divine” or something else?

    What I mean is, in your discussion you have tacitly assumed the goodness of certain ideals, like peace for example, and argued that humankind can achieve those ideals through “experimentation, deliberation and reason, without the divine”. But suppose Genghis Khan came along and said something like “to hell with peace, I am going to chop off your head” (in his ancient Mongolian tongue, of course). Then, how can you establish that such an action is “evil”? Its no more “evil” than warring chimpanzees, or raiding colonies of ants. Maybe Genghis derives a sort of sensory enhancement from chopping heads, and that triggers a hormonal response which further improves his ability to procreate. Its not that bizarre actually … he killed many and fathered many.

    In other words, I think the fundamental argument, with respect to morality, is not that atheists (or any other humans) can’t be good (although empirical data tends to suggest that, but that is another argument, below). Rather it is that the word ‘good’ has no meaning without an absolute standard. The ‘good’ of yesterday is the evil of tomorrow, and vice versa. This sort of relativism is celebrated by some, but I think you can see that it makes the concept of goodness utterly devoid of meaning.

    You might argue from an evolutionary standpoint that good is whatever is beneficial to humankind’s survival. But I see two problems immediately with this:

    a) the future utility of something is utterly unpredictable. There is no way of knowing whether some environmental pressure will preferentially select the Genghis Khans of our species. So there is no way of knowing a priori what is good. Why should we be confined to a different standard than other species? Why can’t I maim and kill at my leisure, if I can get away with it?

    b) it assumes that humankind’s survival is good. The rest of the planet might disagree on this point. Why should the continued adjustment of our genetic code be held up as a desirable end?

    On the question of whether the data suggests that humankind can actually achieve peace through experimentation or reason, consider that the 20th century was marred by the most bloodshed ever (by the religious and the secular humanists and everyone in between) exactly because of our progress in reason, and technology. Almost every new scientific or technological feat has been twisted in to some sort of weapon. One would expect that the evolution of our species would see an increase in peacefulness instead, if it were truly the natural trajectory. Rather, we seem to go to great pains to find ways of killing each other (I mean ‘we’ in the most inclusive sense … not just you and me).

  4. Michel says:

    Hey Doug! Thanks for dropping by 🙂

    I can identify two main points you are making. First, you are absolutely right, I haven’t defined what I mean by goodness, and how it can be a relevant and useful concept without an external definition. The second point is that things are getting worse in terms of violence and war.

    For the first point, I think you and I agree that both religious and non-religious people can be moral. What we may disagree on, is whether the non-religious has a solid foundation for morality. If they don’t, then their current morality probably come from their cultural context, which has been profoundly influenced by religion throughout history. If they get rid of religion, their moral values will slowly erode and that will be bad for everyone. If I am right that this is what we disagree on, I will make the point that the non-religious can in fact, have a solid basis for defining goodness and moral values.

    In the case of religion, a moral code is given. That everyone in society follow this moral code is what could be called a best-case scenario. Every departure from the best-case scenario is then worse, and a continuum of morality states can be defined. You can also do the exact opposite. You can postulate that there is a worse case scenario. Everyone in the society is spending long lives in a state of atrocious suffering. From there, every departure from the worst case scenario is an improvement and a step towards goodness, and you get a different kind of continuum of morality states. Note that in this second continuum, goodness is still not defined, but evil is, and better than evil is too.

    This still doesn’t answer how to reach goodness. We can imagine a continuum of morality states where there are peak and valleys, since in this picture, there is no guarantee that there will be only one optimized state of goodness. We need to start by acknowledging that morality and goodness are irrelevant if there are no conscious creatures around to experience it. In the absence of an absolute standard of goodness,
    goodness must be defined via consciousness. This is where the notion of well-being comes in. Trying to maximize the well-being of the largest number of conscious creatures should definitely take us away from the worst-case scenario.

    Anyway, what I am doing here is essentially reproducing a small part of the argument from Sam Harris about the moral landscape. I definitely cannot phrase it as well as he does, so if you have 27 minutes to loose, look at the first part of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm2Jrr0tRXk&feature=youtu.be (don’t be annoyed that Richard Dawkins is there, he doesn’t open his mouth before the 27th minute :P). Anyway, it would be interesting to see you try to take this one appart 🙂

    Note that hell meets the criteria for the worst-case scenario. If I believe in hell, I must do anything I can to avoid myself and others from getting there, which would mean following the religious moral code. I really can’t argue with that reasoning. I would argue on the other hand, that hell does not exist.

    Ok, now for the war thing. I think you are right that with technology comes more and more terrifying weapons. Given that countries still maintain military forces, this is simply unavoidable. On the other hand, I think the mere scale of the destruction that we are now capable of has deterred major wars since WWII, the Cold War being a good example. I think the idea of war in general really is not the same as it was 100 years ago, or even during the first half of the 20th century. You don’t really see states openly declaring war against each other, precisely because everybody has so many allies and commercial partners. The risk is too high to go to war because countries are now so inter-dependent. A simple cost-benefit analysis can tell you that. You never know how many commercial relations you may loose if you go to war, with any country.

    You cannot say that the world is getting worse by just looking at the increasing potential for destruction. You must also look at what’s going on on different scales of society. Violent crime is going down in Canada since 1992, (after its been rising like nuts since 1962). There is a similar trend in the US. That really makes me wonder what happened in 1992…

    In the end, my point is that increasing international collaboration (of any kind), puts a serious break to our warring instincts. And the reason for that is that countries realize to a certain degree (and not all of them yet) that they are better off cooperating, or else they will make too many enemies. I think the same applies to individuals. I don’t think you can separate well-being, and the right thing to do about it, from societal context. This is why I think that any absolute moral code is bound to lead you to bad choices in certain situations, and especially in a constantly evolving society.

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