Moral Basis


Sometimes conversations prompt other conversations, and that’s the case with SI’s recent post. I get asked from time to time why I might bother listening to or engaging with online trolls or nutters in general, but they serve as a springboard. For instance, how could I dismantle theist trick arguments without experiencing them? Perhaps in one’s attempt to attack, they actually expose a flaw in your argument or make you realize that you need to elaborate further on a topic to avoid confusion. Anyway, there are plenty of good reasons to do so and our favorite fool’s recent rantings prompted me to elaborate more on my views of morality, specifically the issue of a moral basis.

Is there an objective morality? Well, that depends upon your definition of objective. There are secular moralists who argue for an objective morality, but their definition for it reminds me of Jesse Helms’ definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” They’ll claim that there are answers, or at least optimum practices which we’re slowly figuring out, but how do you define optimum? How do we define best? Those are subjective decisions. Humanity may agree on certain absolutes, and those absolutes may indeed appear to be what’s best for humanity, but that’s still a subjective assessment.

I feel the motivation, at least in part, for secular moralists arguing for objective morality is to establish a position of authority in the way religions assert moral authority. I think they feel without that, they can’t justify their moral code. I don’t see it that way. Lacking an objective morality makes selling your morality harder, but not impossible. It requires you to make two sales instead of one, first selling what you define as best for humanity and then selling your morality as the optimum set of practices to realize that goal. (Truth is, religions are in the same boat but they’ve generally escaped the pressure of the first sale through childhood indoctrination and preventing competing products.) When arguing morality, I think often people are talking past one another because they’re working from a different set of what’s best. If two people differ there, then arguing practices is futile.

I don’t see anything wrong with starting from the ethic of reciprocity and working outwards. Unlike the Christian Golden Rule, there has to be consideration for the sentiments of others. For instance, suicide or killing someone may seem reprehensible to you but what of the ill who face nothing but pain and suffering for the rest of their existence who want to die? Would you deny them what they want? If they lacked the means to commit suicide, would you refuse to assist them? What about denying others from assisting them?

Too many laws in this country are made lacking consideration of others. Suicide is illegal? Assisting suicide is illegal? Smoking pot is illegal? In some states sodomy is illegal. I can say these things are ridiculous by first arguing for the ethic of reciprocity and how what’s best for humanity is the pursuit of happiness on individual levels insofar as that pursuit doesn’t impose on others. (Anti-pot people will cite cartels and funding terrorists as the harms imposed on others from buying pot, but such harms are ONLY harms because it’s illegal in the first place.) You can disagree and assert this isn’t what’s best for humanity, but you have to demonstrate why and offer what you think is best and if that involves citing a so-called holy book or a deity, that sales pitch isn’t fairing too well these days.

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13 Responses to “Moral Basis”

  1. I really don't see why most people seem to think that a so-called "objective" morality is superior to a "subjective" one. I think part of the problem is is that of us on the side of science, empiricism, freethought, etc are highly invested in the importance of objectivity and we are afraid of loosening our grip anywhere.

    We see nothing wrong with art being subjective. There is beauty is subjective art and there is a beauty in having an ongoing subjective moral structure. This doesn't mean "random" or that we constantly change every aspect of the morality.

  2. The art analogy is interesting because it's in those terms that religious moralists characterize non-religious morality as this non-definitive, valueless relativism; everybody's take on right and wrong is equally valid just like one's preference for abstract expressionism is as equally valid as another's preference for Romanticism. Morality isn't an individual exercise like appreciating art. It's an application of belief and as such, the circumstances of the application are a means by which we can pass judgement.

    I can think that the guy in front of me on the highway causing a backup should be killed, and we could banter back and forth on the value of that like we could about different art pieces or tv shows, but if I actually killed him, then the discussion changes. At that point the art analogy fails, as does the picture of anything goes moral relativism. We can pass judgment on the Islamic world's practice of honor killing or clitoral mutilation rather than be stymied by cultural relativism as the religious claim, and we can do so without a deity as moral authority.

  3. I'm not sure I'm pleased at all with my bringing up "art" in this discussion! What is important is that we can have a subjective moral basis which doesn't include "wishy washy" or allowing each individual to define moral standards. As you say, we can do so without a deity as moral authority. Not only CAN we, but it's exactly what we do – all of us – even the religious. Our subjectively arrived at societal morals concerning slavery do NOT come from any holy book, authored first hand or second hand by any deity. And that's just one of many examples.

  4. Before you're allowed to graduate from a quality art school, you present your work and then defend it. Art is subjective, sure, but there are aesthetics most can acknowledge as well as certain standards of composition and color which are close to being objective truths. Invoking such things in your work is a means of demonstrating its value. Arguing for a moral course of action by invoking what most would accept as best for humanity would be comparable, no?

    Most people's opinions on morality are as devoid of thought as Helms' opinions on art.

  5. …what do you think about Osama Bin Laden being shot in the face?

  6. He probably died believing he was going to be an inspirational martyr, and eagerly awaiting his virgins.

  7. Well, if Butters from South Park had participated in the raid, he probably would have shot OBL in the dick. That would have been so much better.

  8. Blah Blah Blah! Holy crap you people have a lot of time to waste! Hey Bitter-Man, do you get paid to write this stuff? I get more original and intuitive thoughts from reading Doonesbury comics. I guess that's one good thing about the net, huh? Everyone with an axe to grind can find their own little piece of property and spew all the hate-filled nonsense they wish. I refer to this whole site the way Stewie from Family Guy described the nether regions of a man who became a woman: "a smorgasborg of nonsense."
    Toodle-oo, Bitter-Man.

  9. Are you going to try and convince me that I'm now the angry and bitter one? Good luck. Just look at your title…if that doesn't connote anger and bitterness, well, I really don't know what does.

  10. Convince you? That would be like trying to convince the raving loon on the corner pontificating from the trash bin. No, what's the point of that? Cast not your pearls, yadda yadda.

  11. I guess I must have hit a nerve with you, as it seems I have been relegated to "persona non grata" status. That's cool. I guess even "non-believers" like us don't have to get along, right?

  12. …what do you think about Osama Bin Laden being shot in the face?

  13. Gmail is a free advertising-supported email service provided by Google. It's one of the most popular email services in the world.

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