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.
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.