Human Morality I: Religious confusion

This is the first in a series of posts on morality. They are aimed at countering the usual religious claims for a god-given morality with current scientific understanding of how the morality of our species arose. Also, they attempt to justify a non-theist objective basis for much of the moral decisions we make. This first post outlines what I think are the basic problems with the attempt by religion and theology to understand human morality.

My recent article With God, anything can be permitted? provoked some predictable reaction. In this series I’ll use Matt’s responses on the New Zealand blog MandM (With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality and Divine Commands and Intuitions: A Response to Ken Perrott). In my mind the basic problem is that Matt’s response are theological rather than scientific. And the problem with theology is that it bases itself on circular argument rather than empirical evidence. This argument can become quite convoluted and confusing. (Have a look at Matt’s posts on Divine Command Theory here and here). I sometimes wonder if this is purposeful. It reminds me of the philosopher who, when told by a reader that she couldn’t understand anything in his new book, responded with a grateful thanks and a proud smile!

Advantages of a scientific approach

I recently listened to a Point of Inquiry interview with  Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, (see Dacher Keltner – Born to Be Good). He discussed with DJ Grothe the scientific understanding of issues like human happiness and morality. Grothe commented that science is making rapid progress in this area and is giving religion (which often claims a special role in this area) a “run for it’s money” on morality.

So the science of morality has become established and is making  progress. Of course we must be wary of the speculation often (but not always) involved in evolutionary psychology. Still, even such speculation usually provides a better understanding than the “god did it” theological argumentation. (Although if one wants to “justify” a position claiming it is sanctioned by a god can be very helpful as I pointed out in With God, anything can be permitted?)

The problems with a non-scientific approach are illustrated by the consequences of Newton’s inability to explain the order of the solar system where the planets orbit the sun in a plane (See Isaac Newton and intelligent design). While he could explain much with his laws of motion and gravitation he gave up on the planar arrangement and “explained” it as created by his god. He wrote: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.”

This “god did it” “explanation” had two consequences. It prevented him from persisting with the problem and solving it himself (something he was clearly capable of doing). And it left the discovery of the real reasons to be made by those who came after him. Newton’s ‘god did it” “explanation” may have been a “placeholder” for something he didn’t understand. But it was a “god of the gaps” placeholder which prevented further investigate on his part.

This “theological” approach underlies much of the conflict between science and religion. Even today we can see attempts to impose “god did it” “explanations” in areas like evolutionary science, human consciousness and the origins of religion itself. Fortunately science no longer allows itself to be bullied by such dogmatic attempts to restrict its endeavours.

At the personal level, however, such “theological” approaches can still be powerful. It is natural to attempt to support one’s preconceived beliefs and most cherished wishes by treating the evidence selectively – or even ignoring it. And if this attitude is common in biology it is rampant in questions of the human mind and human morality and ethics.

Theological concepts of morality (right and wrong given to us by a god, morality determined by divine commands) are just forms of “god did it.” Such attempts to understand morality, how humanity decides what is right and wrong, are doomed because they aren’t scientific.

Ontology vs epistemology argument

The theologically inclined appear to prefer discussing questions of morality in the abstract. They will often claim atheists have no basis for morality because they don’t believe in a god which, they claim, is the source of objective morality. Sometimes they deny this claim is offensive by saying it is “ontological.” “God is the source of morality. Atheists can accept that morality without believing in a god.” It’s like saying that God created water. Atheists can still drink that water despite not believing in that god.

However, I think this is disingenuous on two grounds:

1: In practice this is almost always treated as an epistemological claim. It is translated into a criticism of atheism and atheists – claiming they are not moral people. How often do we hear the mantra blaming atrocities carried out by Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Stalin, etc on atheism. Even when arguing ontologically theists easily fall into the epistemological claim (see Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler!).

2: It is naïve, lazy and non-scientific. One should derive one’s understanding from reality rather than dogma.

In the next post (Human Morality II: Objective morality) I will discuss a non-theist objective basis for human morality and moral logic.


See also:
Human Morality II: Objective morality
Human Morality III: Moral intuition
Human Morality IV: Role of religion

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5 responses to “Human Morality I: Religious confusion

  1. Thank you Ken. I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say about objective morality. As you know, I struggle with the term but this could well be because I’m not aware of the proper definitions of objective and subjective.

    I think that ‘objective’ is often confused with ‘ubiquitous subjective’ and that ‘subjective’ doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to have a moral opinion about what other people do. Also, that the way in which theists use ‘objective’ is similar to you stating that you will live by whatever I say is right and call that ‘objective’ whereas the rules that I make up for you to live by are still ‘subjective’ to me. And it seems that any definition of a moral (or immoral) act requires an often unstated “in order to achieve X” accompany the moral claim of “you must not do Y”. It’s that unstated goal that, for me, turns all ‘objective’ moral statements into subjective.

    But, like I said, I’m quite prepared to be corrected as far as my understanding of the meaning of the words ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’.

    I look forward to the rest of the series!


  2. Pingback: Human Morality II: Objective morality « Open Parachute

  3. Hi again Ken, I’ve been a bit busy and haven’t had a chance to read through your series yet but look forward to doing so in the next week.


  4. Pingback: NZ entries in science blog awards « Open Parachute

  5. Pingback: Can science answer moral questions? « Open Parachute

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