Moral Philosophy

There is a wonderful interview with the redoubtable, wonky-nosed, English genius Stephen Fry at bigthink.com. Among other things he argues for not believing in an afterlife so that you don’t waste time on Earth, and that it’s nonsense that, “Mankind needs a god in order to have a moral framework.”

One of the commenters, by the wonderfully named Quinn Detweiler cannot buy the idea that morality can exist without a god:

“Fry essentially makes the assertion that atheism does not logically lead to moral relativism. Unfortunately, he does not provide any logic-based argument for this assertion because it seems counterintuitive to me. If there is no God and humans are merely the product of random chance and natural selection, where does a basis for morality come from? In a truly naturalistic universe, wouldn’t the only “right” thing be whatever helps me to survive and the only “wrong” be something that harms my ability to dominate others?”

This is something I’d chewed over in my mind before. I tried to distill it into a pithy, non-insulting answer, so I wrote the following:

@Quinn:

I don’t know exactly what argument Stephen Fry was referring to, regarding his statement that morality does not depend upon God, but here’s the argument I’d make:

If you depend upon a god (or religion) for morality, you are in danger of following a wrong god; you must form a moral judgement about god to determine that His morality is sound (i.e., that you are following a good god).

For example:

Let’s say you worship Odin, and Odin is a bad god. (His morality is all about invading Scotland and raping villages.) If you depend solely upon religion for your moral compass, how will you know that what the priests are telling you is right (that raping and pillaging is Good) is in fact wrong?

Conversely, if you follow the Christian god, and you believe that he created the Universe and that he is all-powerful, that does not automatically imply that, morally, you can take his rules for granted. He might be a bad god, or people might have corrupted his rules. You can’t form an opinion unless you have your own morality.

I’m assuming that you’re Christian and American—(sorry about that, but your name sounds very American!)—so I imagine you might have heard of the God Hates Fags lot. Most people would agree that their moral philosophy is a pretty corrupted form of Christianity, but—and this is the important thing—they firmly believe that it’s god-given!

A third point, which follows from the above, is that without a notion of morality separate from religion, it becomes impossible for people who disagree on religion to agree on law or morality. But somehow we can all mostly agree that theft and murder are wrong (for example).

“In a truly naturalistic universe, wouldn’t the only “right” thing be whatever helps me to survive and the only “wrong” be something that harms my ability to dominate others?”

My (and most other people’s) morality comes from the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

I think that’s a good basis both for forming ones own moral judgement, and for assessing the rules that are claimed to come from god.

2 thoughts on “Moral Philosophy

  1. Andrew Post author

    John, I don’t believe that God has weighed in on the debate at all. This was a conversation strictly between humans. And if God wants to put his case, I’ll certainly listen to him and consider his argument.

    In fact the whole point of my argument is that we cannot just take ‘God says so’ as a moral imperative. I think it’s sad to take things for granted.

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