100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Secular Morality

I was having a most interesting discussion with a friend of mine once. We got to talking about the old question of morality apart from God. He claims to have found the best system of ethics apart from God that there is. In fact, he said that this is how all people live, whether they realize it or not. It’s simply a version of Utilitarianism, for those who want to find out more. It goes like this... In whatever we do, we must act so that we maximize happiness in the world. Now there is actually a version which says we should all maximize our own happiness, but the problem with that is clear: If I think murdering some people will make me happy, then should I do that? Of course not. But this friend of mine has it covered by saying, “No, you have to maximize everybody’s happiness.” So we have this sort of ledger of happiness where I might refrain from doing something that will make me happy but leave some people unhappy, or I might actually do something which makes me unhappy if it will make other people happy. It accounts for selfless acts. And this friend of mine believes that this is how we all really do live our lives. He gave this example; When we see a girl being beaten up by some man, we might intervene if we think we can overpower that man. But if we don’t think we can overpower him then we won’t intervene. Why? Because if we fail to overpower the man he’ll have beaten up the girl and us, leaving more people “unhappy” in this equation. But if we can overpower the man then we intervene because reducing the length of this girl’s ordeal reduces the amount of unhappiness clocking up on the “unhappiness meter” of this equation. And of course, there are degrees of happiness and unhappiness; one punch to the girl’s face might be worth a great deal of unhappiness, whereas the mild pain to my fist when I beat this guy up doesn’t count for much at all. So we all need to do a mental sum of how much happiness versus how much unhappiness our actions will result in, and do whatever maximizes happiness in the world.

There are a lot of problems with this theory. First of all, it really just seems to describe the psychology of a person’s decision making rather than tell us what’s actually right or wrong. The man might choose to maximize happiness by letting the girl get beat up since he feels that he can’t overpower the man. But that doesn’t tell us that his decision was the moral one. But even as a system of deciding what to do it has problems. How do we quantify happiness? What prevents me from thinking that the amount of happiness I’m going to get is far more significant than it really is, and the amount of unhappiness I’m going to generate is far less significant than it really is? There is a risk that we can justify immoral acts by claiming (and perhaps genuinely believing) that what we're doing will ultimately bring happiness to people despite some initial unhappiness. But as I discussed this system of ethics further, I realized it can actually justify anything at all. I asked my friend, “Let’s say that a man and a woman find themselves alone some place. The thought to rape this woman enters his mind. Now, this will make him happy and her unhappy. But what if the amount of happiness he gets precisely equals the amount of unhappiness she feels over being raped? Do the two cancel out?” Well, ignoring the complicating factor of unhappiness felt by her friends and relatives, my friend says “This is an ethically neutral situation; it’s neither right nor wrong.” … “So he’s OK to rape her?”, I asked him to confirm. … “It’s neither right nor wrong,” he said to me. “Alright,” I said, “what if this girl now gets pregnant, and this child, though conceived in violence, is the joy of her life! It brings her so much happiness daily! According to your theory, the rape was not just ethically neutral, it was in fact the right thing to do!” And to my surprise my friend nodded! “Yes,” he said, “...the resulting happiness from our actions may not be known until maybe years later.” And then he gave this example; “What if I had the opportunity to kill Hitler when he was just a little boy? That would actually have been a right thing to do, preventing the murder of even one single Jew, but we can only know that now.” So now we have just compounded the problem; we can literally justify anything because it may, in fact, lead to more happiness! If only we were omniscient and could know the net outcome of our actions!

Well, I heard another secular theory for morality without God. This time it was from a philosopher named Shelley Kagan on YouTube. He said, “The moral rules are those which we would give to each other if we were perfectly rational and wise.” And I thought to myself, “In other words, it’s what we would do if we were God!” You see, in both of these systems of morality, our own lack of knowledge and wisdom brings the whole system down. We cannot arrive at a system of ethics that we can actually live by. This philosopher went on to say that this hypothetical meeting where we all decide on the moral rules of life must take place behind a "veil of ignorance" where we don't know what our position in life will be. This is so that the rules remain fair; it is like saying "I've always gotta put myself in other people's shoes to see how the rules I'm going to live by affect them." Now, here we're trying to develop a system for determining what the moral rules are, and yet the system itself has this rule imposed upon it, which is essentially a moral rule. The system which is supposed to give us all moral rules already presupposes the existence of a moral rule; that of fairness. The Utilitarian theory does the same; it presupposes that there is a moral rule to respect and promote the happiness of others; you can't just increase your own happiness.

These theories don’t tell us where our moral values come from. Rather, they try to provide what “must be” the rationale for what we do already consider moral or immoral. They fail to do that, as we’ve seen, but that’s really what they’re attempting to do. There is a sense of morality we have built into us, and often when these theories justify things we know to be immoral we seek to modify the theory to deal with the violation; like introducing a rule about fairness into the Kagan’s theory, or about respect for all people’s happiness in the Utilitarian one.

When my friend’s system justified rape, I asked him, “But isn’t that immoral?” He said, “Yeah, but it’s too contrived a scenario. In reality we worry about the unhappiness of guilt which will stay with us forever...” Now guilt is an interesting thing. It’s the regret of having done something wrong. But if part of what determines right and wrong in the first place is whether I’ll feel guilt or not, then right and wrong have to be independent of the process which involves an evaluation of how much guilt I’ll feel. Christianity, on the other hand, tells us where our sense of right and wrong comes from. God created us with it. Christianity gives us a maxim as well; “love thy neighbour”. This can be problematic; I can justify sexual immorality because “I love her”, or I can justify many cruel acts because it’s “tough love”, where we have the same problem that the Utilitarian faced: “Happiness will be achieved after some initial experience of unhappiness.” But the Bible clarifies this maxim with example after example of what it means to “love thy neighbour”. The Utilitarian, if they gave such a volume of examples and clarifications, would have no basis for them. Christianity, on the other hand, says “This is what love is, whether you agree or not, because love is the very character of God, and the character of God is precisely what is being revealed to you in these Scriptures!”

I have yet to hear a theory of morality which doesn’t simply try to explain or rationalize the moral laws we all tend to assume by nature. You can’t have morality without God because love for another person only makes sense when there is a Creator of that person who created them for a purpose. People have value because God has wonderfully made them and cherishes everything He creates. Without God the only value a person would have to us is what we might gain through them for ourselves. This is true because without God, “I” stand in the place of God; there is none higher or more important in the universe than me.

Perhaps more interesting than the question “What is moral?” is the question “Why be moral?” I don’t believe an atheistic world view has an answer to this question. People say that we should be moral for the sake of the survival of the species, but if our species dies out through rampant immoral behaviour, so what? There is no God who’ll care about that, and no human who’ll care either since they’ll all be dead, and the dead don’t care about anything. But what about the Christian perspective? I suppose we could say “Be moral to please God.” But then we might ask “Why should I please God?” I think the answer to that question is “Because that’s the very purpose of your existence.” God made us to glorify Him. We should please God because we were made in His image. That is, we were made to imitate God. We were made to have a relationship with God, but if we have a relationship with God, how can we sin against Him? As tempting as sin is, and as upsetting as it might be to be called a “square” sometimes, I know that I am never happier than when I am being obedient to God. Why? Because I’m fulfilling my very purpose in life. To be moral is to be who you were created to be.

I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have given me life.
Psalms 119:93