Freedom is scary.

I’m an atheist who takes his atheism extremely seriously, so I’m very frequently bothered by the inherent philosophical difficulties which come embedded within an atheistic mind-set; I can see why God is an appealing solution to these problems for some people. Personally find it unsatisfactory, mostly because I’m somewhat of an Occamite; postulating the existence of an entity for which there is no evidence in order to paper over the cracks in my philosophy is something I find rather intellectually unappealing.

So of course you need alternative solutions to many of life’s problems; a very tricky one being the question of morality.

I would say that there is no such thing as objective morality, that morality is inherently subjective. This is what makes writing an atheistic theory of ethics and morality almost inherently a fool’s errand, because without the notion of a pinning moral authority, the whole edifice falls apart. This has a whole plethora of unpleasant consequences, including the notion that morality itself is meaningless, especially in the face of one’s absolute free will.

Why can I not do anything I want? Murder, steal, sing like nobody’s listening, rape, crochet, etc. whenever and however I feel?

Personally, I believe the solution to the conundrum is that one should form one’s own code of ethics which one should then follow; by that I mean to say that one should become one’s own legislator, judge, jury, and executioner. Maybe I should make the internal decision that I find crochet immoral, for instance.

Sin then becomes an essentially relative phenomenon, when you realise that you have, through temptation, transgressed your own moral code. The parallels there with conventional Christianity are obvious; I suppose there’s then the equally tricky question of the meaning of redemption without a redemptive authority; how can we forgive ourselves our own transgressions? Can we be absolved? Is absolution even a desirable concept?

I suppose one could appeal to a kind of biologically-derived social morality; that we have inbuilt ideas of morality as a society because it’s an excellent survival strategy, so our behaviours are biologically modulated to exclude murder and the like because such things are deleterious to our chances of survival as a group, whereas activities like crochet are of a much more neutral character.

Of course, this would seem to violate the principle of absolute free will; perhaps the concept of freedom is antithetical to the concept of morality.

I don’t know. I’m only an amateur philosopher, after all.

6 thoughts on “Morality

  1. The morals argument is the one that annoys me the most the idea that I need some spiritual being to forgive me when really forgiveness should come from those we have wronged and redemption from genuine regret and making sure you never do something again, as in a change of mental attitude so that would come from within. The idea of only having morals because of fear of going to hell seems the shallowest set of morals you could possibly have.

    In evolutionary terms for example vampire bats share blood meals in a tit for tat system and that is proven the most stable evolutionary strategy so there may be some origins of morals in that sort of thing but those are not conscious morals, if bats could cheat I'm sure they would. This is also incidentally why I don’t believe in group selection, we only do things that increase our genes' frequency not everybody else’s if that happens to be what is best for the group then fine but ‘for the good of the group’ is not (in my opinion) ever the underlying reason.

    I think morals are a conscious phenomenon to do with compassion/respect for other people rather than something evolved as such. The development of religion was typical of bigger societies and was a way of organising and more importantly controlling the masses using God as some sort of justification. There is something appealing about religious rules such as some of those from the 10 commandments for example, possibly partly because of empathy, I don’t want to murder anyone’s siblings because I know how sad I would be if mine were killed. Maybe religious rules set the premise for social rues and conventions such as the ones we have now although with the advances of science we feel the need for a figure such as God less and less.

  2. Actually maybe the tit for tat systems could provide the underlying neural basis for morals and justice but then somehow we have developed this further with consciousness.

    And yes we probably do have less free will than we think.

  3. I always set my own moral code based on the idea of do as you would be done by, and that always worked for me. This also meant that there was no moral reason why I shouldn't get ludicrously drunk, take drugs, or have entirely consensual but also entirely casual drunken sex with total strangers; again, well, I guess that did always work for me at the time although I don't think I exercised those priveleges quite as much as some people seem to think…!!

    Then I suppose the do-as-you-would-be-done by rule had a few things to say about self-respect which perhaps I should have listened to.

    As a Christian I don't do mad or immoral things because doing so will get me sent straight to hell; I try not to do them because they hurt others or myself and as a Christian I am meant to love everyone – which includes myself, and thus the moral stricture I feel against getting wasted and pulling random guys.

    Forgiveness and redemption comes in feeling guilty – I didn't feel guilty or regretful until very recently for some of the things I had done in the past and that in a way was a gradual act of self-forgiveness – or rather, it was that alongside and secondary to the feeling of being forgiven by god. It also comes in making amends – by trying to be a better person, by saying sorry as and where necessary, all of that; and that hopefully will lead to being able to forgive yourself and be forgiven.

    I thought about all of this quite a lot as an atheist; I have to say it does feel like it all makes more sense now that I see a God in the picture.

  4. I agree that morals derived from avoidance of the wrath of some kind of supreme being is a pretty inherently shallow means of deriving a set of morals; I was more making the point that the only way you can possibly form an absolute morality is by reference to an entity which is defined to be absolute, i.e. a god of some variety. Sure, it's shallow, but it's the only way to derive a set of morals which are non-subjective.

    I think there's a compelling argument for group selection. Animals of the same species or group aer more related to each other than they are related to another species or out of their group, so they will act to preserve some fraction of their own genome if they act to preserve the group. Obviously it's a much weaker effect than would be achieved by self-preservation, for instance.

    Thing is, you've got to ask why we have compassion or respect for other people. Why do we feel guilt when we feel that we have morally transgressed? The very nature of feeling that makes me think that there must be at least some biological basis to it. Human beings cluster into social groupings very much like other animals; their behaviour is biologically defined, it follows that ours is not entirely conciously constructed.

    Maybe Sartre had it the wrong way round when he talked of “bad faith” – he thought that we found ways to deny our essential freedom. Maybe we're slaves, and we find ways to pretend we're free.

  5. Heh, I have to agree with you that having a God in the picture would make everything make a lot more sense, so I can see why a lot of people like it that way round. But I just don't feel it.

    I think you have a point about the self-respect; I used to waste an awful lot of time being angry or jealous, and it's still something I struggle with; it's all ultimately pointless because they're things which just eat you up from the inside – for the lack of a better word, they're corrosive to the soul. You have to try and make amends and become better or you'll go mad.

    Personally, I did wonder if I never got involved in taking drugs or having casual sex or the like because I was morally against them (which I kinda felt like I was, at the time) or because I was just too scared to ever really try to. In all honesty it was probably the latter. I'm not sure if I regret that or not.

  6. The thing about drug taking etc is that I wouldn't want to do it myself but I don't mind other people doing it as long as they don't force me to/ judge me if I did actually take drugs. I am only ever against drug taking when it is harmful to others (people around a drug taker), which sort of stays in the bounds of do unto others as you would have done to yourself. I mean drugs are a bad idea not because they are illegal but because of what they do to your health, it is just about common sense. There is nothing wrong with sleeping around as long as you use a condom why should anyone be judgmental about that if you enjoy it? The only thing about people who sleep around loads that annoys me is when your clubbing with someone and they abandon you all the time for someone they have met there, but again that is what I wouldn’t do to anyone and then would not want it to be done to me.

    Maybe my morals are few and far between. I really don't see the need for anyone else to set the rules; most of them are fairly logical. I see the idea behind having a standard set of rules because it is easier to treat everyone the same even though we all have different opinions on what is wrong and what is right, but that for me that need not be a spiritual authority but a social one.

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