Progress and relativism

If morality is relative then by what standard can we say society is or is not making progress?

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© Dave DuBay

Saying that right and wrong are social constructs implies that actions aren’t intrinsically right or wrong. In other words, if human opinion is the essence of morality then we can’t say something is inherently wrong regardless of what some people might think.

That’s a common criticism of moral relativism. But taking this a step farther one can argue that the idea of progress makes no sense because progress implies an external standard along which a person or a society can move from a lower to a higher state. Sure, you can make progress toward your personal goals. But your goals are not universal. Other people or cultures might think your values are wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything is permissible under relativism. Every culture and every person (except maybe psychopaths) believes certain things are wrong. So it does not follow that behaviorally secular relativists must be less moral than religious people. After all, Islamists believe Allah wants them to blow people up. On the other hand, there’s no basis for a relativist to claim that their moral beliefs should be considered universal.

But if we do believe certain things are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks—and most of us do believe this—then we’re implying that morality is objective. If morality is objective, however, then how do we distinguish what really is right or wrong from people’s misconceptions?

This is often solved with an appeal to religion. God establishes right and wrong. And the Bible explains it all. Or the Koran. Or another scripture. It depends on your opinion about which scripture is the true Word of God, and how to interpret that scripture. So we’re stuck in a cycle of opinion.

Scriptures have others problems as well. Should gays and never married women who are not virgins be executed? The Bible says yes (Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Despite apologetics that try to explain it away, it’s hard to honestly say that a perfectly good deity would command such a thing. Further, if humanity has morally progressed beyond such barbarism then humans have morally surpassed the biblical God. This implies that if morality is objective then God didn’t create it.

But could the laws of morality, like scientific claims about the laws of nature, have emerged spontaneously without a divine creator? The problem is that morality necessarily entails conscious intentions, so how does one construct a convincing argument that the laws of conscious intentions emerged by chance with no consciousness or intentionality behind them?

I don’t have perfect answers to these questions. One challenge of being human is that we’re smart enough to ask questions that we’re not smart enough to answer. But I can reach a few tentative conclusions.

A non-theist must accept the implications of relativism or develop a more compelling answer to these questions. But if God exists, and if God is the source of morality, then it seems to me that the best we can do is strive to understand morality while acknowledging that our perceptions are deeply flawed, and that we are easily led astray. And religion, rather than being a corrective, has long been a great catalyst for leading us astray. Scriptures, then, are human attempts to understand God, not the inerrant revelation of God.

We should trust no one who claims to know God’s will. And one should distrust one’s own beliefs about God’s will most of all—the temptation for self-justification is too great. This means that morality is primarily about rigorous self-criticism, which includes the realization that pointing a finger at others is usually just an avoidance tactic.



Morality without deities

Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.

Near Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.

Species evolve then die out. And things go on.

An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.

Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.

Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.

Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.

Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:

  1. You shouldn’t do that to me.
  2. You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
  3. I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.

We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.

This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.

But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.

Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.

An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.

And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.

That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.

The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.

On what basis can say this is wrong?

If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.

To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.

Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.

If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.

Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.

Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.

Eye in the Sky: A Not Really Movie Review

Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren and that guy from Breaking Bad (the kid, not the old guy). And Alan Rickman is in it too, which made me feel sad because of his recent death.

The premis (no spoilers!) is that British and American forces want to bomb a house in Somalia with four notorious terrorists whom they know are about to suicide bomb a crowded marketplace. But there’s a little girl selling bread next to the house, and she’ll be killed if they bomb the house. If they don’t bomb the house, however, then more people (including children) will die when the terrorists strike.

It’s a heartbreaking dilemma. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It reminds me of the trolley problem, which philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed in the 1960s. It concerns a long-standing debate about ethics. Utilitarians argue for the greatest good for the greatest number. But what if enslaving a small minority benefits the majority? Is that okay? Deontologists argue that the rules are the rules. Slavery is wrong, so it doesn’t matter if more people will benefit. Lying is wrong too. But what if the Nazis show up and ask if you’re hiding Jews in your attic? If the rules say you can’t lie then do you tell the truth?

The trolley problem asks you to imagine that a trolley is about to go off the tracks and kill five people. What if pushing a fat man onto the tracks will stop the trolley and save five lives? One man dies to save five – that’s the greatest good for the greatest number. But the rules say killing is wrong.

Foot was less concerned about what people chose than why they chose one or the other. It turns out that most people would not push the fat man onto the tracks. Actively killing one person feels worse than passively doing nothing, even if five people die. That ethics is primarily based on emotion with reasoning being more like a post hoc justification is one key finding. And that people are motivated to avoid taking responsibility for a situation is also important.

But the trolley problem is kinda silly. No one can really imagine being in that situation. The fat man’s body probably won’t stop the trolley. And you could just yell at the bystanders, “Hey, you morons, get away from the goddamn tracks!”

Eye in the Sky turns the trolley problem into a plausible, real world dilemma that anyone could imagine being in. Do they bomb the terrorist’s house knowing the girl will die? Or do they save the girl knowing that the terrorists will kill even more people? You’ll have to watch the movie to see what they decide.

Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.