Why ought we be moral?

Hi Josh!  Thanks for your latest post .  Again – I appreciate the time and effort that you put into these communications.  It’s always important to engage in meaningful and well-intended debate as part of a civil society.

In your post, you noted that I tend toward prolixity.  Sorry about that – it’s just part of my nature.  I’ve always been a communicator and have never seen a situation where one word is better than two.  My long-suffering co-workers, customers, family and mostly my wife can attest to this – many times when I look into Jyl’s eyes I can see that she is mentally adding a muzzle to my image :-).

Unfortunately, the subject that you have brought up is one that I have thought about in detail and with wide-ranging consequence.  In fact, this is the fundamental problem that I faced when I chose to move on with my life – how do I create a new worldview without my old yardsticks metersticks?   This is a concept that both frustrated and fascinated me as a new unbeliever.

I’ll try not to write a book – and frankly, I did.  I wrote about 10,000 words before I realized that I was just rewriting books that you can read yourself that are written better and more clearly than possible by my meager hand.  You’re right that clarity can be achieved in a shorter structure.  So here it is Josh – as boiled down as I can make it.

Your two questions are intertwined –

  1. Why ought we be moral?
  2. How can anything have intrinsic value in a naturalistic universe?

The answer is actually simple.  So simple that it took two years to percolate through my thick skull.

I find value in the internal and external validation of my natural moral principles.

Natural moral principals are deep structures of the mind that exist because they *need* to exist for society to work.  Things like self-sacrifice for a child or another human, helping someone in need, or – in general – reducing the suffering of thinking creatures is hard-wired into the pleasure centers of the human mind.  We get pleasure from helping others – this is a proven fact of human existence.  There is a great *HUGE* amount of literature concerning this – I urge you to look it up.  Altruism is an evolutionary response to the pressures of competition in the world – we can’t help but find it enjoyable and deeply emotionally satisfying.

People who do not have the structures – they find value in pain, they cannot empathize with others, they enjoy creating suffering – are nearly universally seen as diseased or broken.  This is human nature as well.

There are even web apps that you can play with to show how cooperation and sacrifice between individuals in a group can lead to greater success of the group as a whole compared to groups that are selfish in nature – especially in harsh environments.  Check it out here for a simple version . . . crank up the disease and harshness and soon the cooperative blobs win.  This has been modeled many many times to the same result even with much more complex algorithms.

But fundamentally I think we’re getting away from the point here.

Let me ask you a question.  Let’s say that a person – for whatever reason – decides to dedicate part of their lives to helping out a remote village in India or Africa.  They provide these folks with access to clean water, or teach them a new method for farming that increases yield, or maybe help them with medical needs.  Think of Doctors Without Borders perhaps.  These people literally give their lives to what they do.  Is the reduction of suffering and the increase in happiness of these people of value?  Regardless of the future state of the Universe as a whole?

Please don’t mix up the value of the end state with the value of the now.  I agree with you Josh – one day the entire Universe will suffer heat death and even the protons themselves will decay away.  But that is then – this is now.  Any reduction of suffering in this Universe has intrinsic value regardless of the end state – for those people were able to lead happier lives while they existed.  One day they will not – but for now they can enjoy a sunset, a beautiful painting, fall in love, raise a child, and hopefully find happiness in their lives.  Isn’t this a basic good that we can celebrate?

These values are internally validated by my natural moral principals and sometimes externally validated by society.  We look at people who give themselves selflessly as special – religious figures, doctors, even occasionally soldiers when they commit a selfless act of bravery.  They are celebrated by society and their lives and sacrifices are given validation. This is a natural principle that we see through time in all mature societies.

This is also why when horrible things happen we can all (religious or not religious) objectively look at the event and agree that it was terrible.  Any increase in suffering without reason bothers us fundamentally – even if the end result is good.  We all agree that Stalin was a monster – even though he was trying to create (at first) a perfect society where there would be no inequality or strife.  “When wood is chopped, the chips will fly” may sound reasonable unless it’s your family that goes to the Gulag.  Even if Stalin had succeeded his means would not have been justified by the end.

As far as why ought we be moral?  Because it makes us feel good – and because without moral behavior society would collapse.  Moral behavior is a fundamental structure of society itself.

Here’s a quote by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?

Any person that requires an external moral force to be good isn’t a good person.  Since I’ve left faith frankly I’ve become a more moral person.  Why?  Because I’ve faced the fact that I’m doing it for me and for the folks that I love – not for an invisible judge.  And things that you do for yourself always have a deeper meaning and require a more sincere level of thought and commitment.

Let’s turn this around Josh – if god is good and that is what defines good then is it wrong to murder, rape, and hold slaves if he says it’s ok?  He’s supported all these things and more in the bible.  If he came to you tomorrow and said – “slavery is totally cool.  Look at all of the times in the bible that I could have spoken against it but instead, I supported it.  Keeping slaves is a blessed by me”.   Would that make it right?

Is fundamental morality itself subjective and changeable according to the whim of a god?

That’s the exact argument that the Southern slave owners used to enslave others.  It was ok in their society Josh – it was expected and considered the absolutely correct and moral thing to do.  But many many people back then knew intuitively that it was wrong – including many of the slaveholders themselves like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.  The slave-holding side was supported by biblical history including reference after reference in the old and new testament – and the other was supported by the natural moral sense of man.  Who was right?

It’s odd – I feel like you’re arguing for a subjective morality and I’m arguing for a relatively absolute one.  Isn’t the shoe on the wrong foot here?

Thank you for you time and effort Josh – I appreciate it!







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