Is Morality Arbitrary?

Hotei, god of happiness at Jōchi-ji temple“There are many brands of atheism, but they all have some points in common. First, one common point is that none have a rational explanation of the objectivity of moral rules.

Not all cultures agree on what priority to place on various moral rules, but one thing that is so obvious about moral rules is that they are objective. When guilt pricks us, it does not say we betray a matter of taste or opinion; the feeling of guilt is the feeling of having offended a law. When injustice rankles, we do not accuse those who trespass against us of having breached a matter of taste or opinion; we refer to a standard we expect the other to know and acknowledge. We cannot help it.

In all human experience, everything is open to doubt but this. No man with a working conscience can escape the knowledge. It is the one thing we cannot not know. And yet atheists are at a loss to explain it.

I do not call atheists immoral, but I note they cannot give a rational reason to account for morality.

In any atheist worldview, moral laws are an invention of man and serve his contingent purposes, or an imposition of Darwinian survival mechanisms that serve the contingent purposes of the Selfish Gene. Such purposes as the preservation of life or the pursuit of happiness are subjective, hence not laws at all. Whether selected by nature or by man, if moral maxims are selected merely as a means to an arbitrary end, they are merely expedient conveniences.”

~ John C. Wright


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11 thoughts on “Is Morality Arbitrary?

  1. We live in communities. Morality is easy to account for in that context. I don’t need a god to tell me that stealing from my neighbor is a bad idea: if I don’t respect their stuff, why should they respect mine?

    • It sounds like you agree with the above quote (ie. that morality is an expedient convenience). Why do you believe that anyone should respect anyone’s stuff in the first place?

      • Because they care about their own things. It’s an exercise in empathy. It’s how we determine how we all get along while living in close proximity. If I like my things, then you probably like your things. If I wouldn’t want you to take my stuff, then you probably don’t want me to take yours.

      • Certainly. I am wondering, though, why anyone should care about my feelings toward my own stuff and why empathy should be a consideration from an atheistic worldview. Case in point: I recently had some bikes stolen from my backyard. No one saw the perpetrator, who will suffer no bad consequences for his actions. Why shouldn’t he have taken my children’s bikes when there was no consequences to him and only gain from his perspective? What did it matter to him that my children liked their bikes? Why should it have mattered to him in that situation — especially if morality is an expedient convenience, which in this case he deemed to be expedient to ignore? Was it “wrong” for him to steal from my property? What would it even mean to say that he was “wrong” to take the bikes in the first place? If the idea is just to show empathy as a matter of respect, then the thief has done nothing “wrong:” he has merely disrespected my family. Why should we legislate against “disrespect”?

        Also, what if I own something that I do not really like? Would it be okay then for someone to steal it? Do the feelings of the victim determine the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a perpetrator’s actions? What if I didn’t like the bikes that were stolen, but I still feel disrespected and violated that they were taken from my children? Which feeling then takes precedence — like or respect? By what standard does it do so? Who gets to impose their opinion on everyone else and on what basis? Why should a situation like this matter anyway since we are only talking about hurt feelings and not any real objective moral law or rule that has been violated?

        When you say that I would want people to respect my property and so I should respect theirs, it seems to me that you are invoking my religious beliefs: In Christian terms, the idea that one should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is often called the Golden Rule. Only Christianity has this rule, though: other religions have a similar rule but in the negative, ie. “don’t do to others what you would not want done to you.” The two principles lead to very different “morality” in practice. So I am confused as to why, if there is no god, I should follow a Christian religious principle and not some other rule of conduct. Why should empathy and respect matter other than as a means to an end, which can be easily discarded when a different end justifies different means?

  2. Hi Meg,

    There’s no official atheist position on morality because atheism is not in itself a worldview, but rather statement of disbelief in gods. It clears the table for further discussions so to speak, rather than imposing specific philosophies. Humanism is an ethical framework that encompasses moral philosophy, although there are a number of different moral stances within humanism (as there are within religion). I can’t speak for other humanists, but I can share my opinion: there is no objective morality. To date, no-one has shown me good evidence that it exists, although I am always interested in new attempts.

    Regarding your question whether your bike thief should have stolen your children’s bikes, this is similar to the centuries-old “is-ought” problem described by 1700’s philosopher David Hume, who put forward that you can’t get an “ought” from an “is”. In other words, your understandable distress over the bikes theft (the “is”) does not itself lead to the conclusion that people shouldn’t steal bikes (the “ought”). This is one problem with the concept of objective morality.

    This atheist deals with the problem of bike theft by accepting that morality is relative, but that does not in any way diminish its value. It offends me because the concept of possession is likely one that conferred an evolutionary advantage. It didn’t have to be that way, and I’m sure many of our ancestors had no sense of possession. They died out however, but if they hadn’t then our species’ moral code may have been completely different. Bike theft also offends the majority of people because humans are a relatively new species, and hence we overwhelmingly resemble each other more so than not, both physiologically and psychologically. Because it offends us, we pass laws to prohibit bike theft and pay taxes to enforce them. It is worth noting that these outcomes of relative morality (laws, policing) are far more concrete than the outcomes of objective morality. After all, the universe just looked on with disinterest when the bikes were stolen.

    If you’re interested in the scientific basis for morality in humans and the animal kingdom, then I recommend this pee-reviewed paper. It’s only 12 pages and is a good starting point:

    As an interesting side-note, the Golden Rule was first elucidated in 500BC by Confucius, Chinese philosopher. To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t religious.

    • Hi Travis!

      When I use the phrase “atheistic worldview,” I am not claiming that atheism is, in and of itself, a complete worldview (although a case can be made that it is: Is Atheism a Worldview?). Rather, it is part of a worldview that is atheistic in nature, ie. humanism (marxism, secular humanism, cosmic humanism, postmodernism, etc. etc. etc. — pick your flavour, or “denomination” if you will). I know that humanists don’t consider their worldview to be a religion, but it has been ruled to be one in various court judgments, at least in the United States (I believe the court case pertained to the education system). The Humanist Manifestos I & II also state that Humanism is “a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view.”[Paul Kurtz, in the preface to Humanist Manifestos I & II (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1973), p. 3. — I am relying on someone else’s citation here as I do not have time at the moment to search it out on my own].

      My discussion of the bikes wasn’t meant to prove that there was any objective morality. I am presupposing a humanist worldview in my answer, which was meant to show that hessianwithteeth’s statement that people shouldn’t steal for reasons of respect, empathy, etc. could not be made to apply “universally” or “objectively” — or even to all people living in close proximity to one another. There is no reason to have stopped someone from stealing my children’s bikes in the situation I described. I think you agree with my conclusion and can therefore understand why I don’t think that hessianwithteeth has provided any basis for “morality” as he has claimed to have done, although I’m not sure what “morality” even means from his point of view. What does “morality” mean to you?

      You say that “morality” is relative, but it seems to me that by that you mean it is culturally or socially relative and not individually relative. Would you consider yourself to be a postmodernist? Why should the fact that someone’s action “offends” people mean that the action should therefore be prohibited? Whose feelings of offence get to determine what everyone else can and can’t do and why? Here is an old interview with now former Satanists who articulate a slightly different morality to what you do: The First Family Of Satanism (no endorsement of the Christian interviewer here – I reject his theology). Why should humanists get to determine the laws for everybody instead of Satanists? And which humanists, given that you acknowledge a differing of “moral” stances within humanism? And why should feelings be the basis of law when feelings are fickle things that can and do change all the time? How much social stability can there be, in the absence of a dictator, when law is uncertain and ever changing because it is based on fickle majority sentiment? And back to the bike question, why should we respect private property in the first place when other societies don’t? Perhaps humans are evolving past the concept of private property and the West needs to catch up with human evolution. How would we know? What if the concept of possession no longer confers an evolutionary advantage? What then? [I don’t see how stealing my children’s bikes would stop the thief from passing on his genes so maybe at least not all property needs to be respected?]

      If majority rules, as is implied by your comment, would you jettison the concept of minority rights in the West? Would you say that it is all right for Saudi Arabia to stone homosexuals to death because the citizens of that country are offended by their existence or behavior? Is it all right for witch doctors in Africa to murder Albino children for their body parts to use in their potions because that is how their society works? Was it okay for Hitler to murder Jews because German society had decided they were “vermin” who needed to be exterminated? I am in no way trying to imply that you would do any of these things; I am just trying to clarify what your position is and if you are holding to cultural relativism or not.

      When I look up Confucius’s Golden Rule, I get: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” (from Wikipedia). With all due respect, that is not the identical to Christianity’s Golden Rule, which is “do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” The two are similar (one negative; one positive) but lead to different “morality” in practice. Hessianwithteeth was articulating a principle in the positive, ie. I should respect other people’s property because I would like them to respect mine, which follows the Christian train of thought. I was asking why use that principle and not some other.

      I apologize if my comment is somewhat rambling. I am trying to write in the midst of constant interruptions at the moment :-).

  3. These people are not “offended” by the concept of theft: The Leaders of Tomorrow. How can I know from a humanist point of view whether they are less evolved, having reverted back to the behavior of their distant ancestors, or more evolved, with humanity moving past the notion of private property? There are a good many people working in the world today to abolish private property (Google the UN’s Agenda 21, etc.). Perhaps these two are on the vanguard of the new “morality” ie. “communal consensus as to how people ‘should’ behave.” Without an objective standard to appeal to, how can one know whether to applaud them and join them or not? After all, if society and therefore morality is always changing, someone has to start challenging the status quo at a time when the new morality is not yet socially accepted, right? So since today’s “sins” will be tomorrow’s “rights,” why not start enjoying those “rights” right now?

  4. Hi Meg,

    Thanks for your reply. Your raised many points in your comments, and I may not have time to go through all of them, for which I apologise. Nevertheless, I’ll give it my best shot.

    Regarding the definition of morality, there is no single definition that applies in all contexts. The most durable definition that I have found is “a consistent system of beliefs and values that humans use to guide behaviour”. Hence almost all people can be said to have a moral system, although they don’t always agree. For example, I’m sure that Taliban leaders are sincere when they say they believe allowing girls to go to school is immoral, just as I am being sincere when I say I believe it is immoral to prevent girls going to school. So at this point it may seem that the Taliban leader and I are at an impasse and we may be unable to resolve our competing relative views on morality. It surely would not help to claim my morality is objectively correct based on my religion (or lack of) because he could simply do the same. Is there no means of establishing the correct course of action?

    Fortunately, I believe there is. Firstly we can establish whether or relative moral beliefs are based on correct facts. Recent good scientific evidence has been produced demonstrating that psychological differences between genders were negligible and vastly overshadowed by inter-individual differences (see Hyde et al). So I could prove to the Taliban commander that women derive equal benefit from education. Secondly, I could make an argument to shared deeper beliefs, i.e. concern for others well-being. An excellent recent example of this was when Judge Jones, a Republican-appointed conservative judge ruled in favour of gay marriage based on the moving personal testimony of same-sex couples. He put aside his belief in protecting traditional marriage because of a deeper and more powerful belief of doing unto others as he would like others due to him. This was shown when he wrote “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history”. This is how moral change works in the actual world, not by measuring a pre-existing objective morality, but by influencing each other’s relative moral opinions through argument, persuasion, appeals to common ground and occasionally coercion (e.g. the civil war to end slavery).

    Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult term to define, so whether I would describe myself as a postmodernist would depend on the context in which it was used. However, there is much to be said for the view that a lot of what we consider “truth” is actually a mental construct endowed on us by evolution to aid us in navigating and surviving our environment, i.e. often “truth” is an imperfect map rather than the terrain itself.

    In regards to your question as to why humanists should decide laws instead of Satanists, I would say they shouldn’t. Rather, I feel that Satanists should have their right to put forward their case for their moral beliefs in the public square, as should Christians, Humanists, Hindus, Muslims and so forth. After all, we all have to live together, so we should hear each other out. Plus, for all we know Satanists may have valid concerns and helpful suggestions, as may Christians and so forth. There is nothing inherent in humanism that makes our relative moral system superior. In practice, we resolve our moral differences largely by the same methods outlined earlier. If the moral differences can’t be worked out, then in practice the will of the majority sets the standard of behaviour, and the restof us have to lump it. Fortunately, due to our innate psychological similarities as a species, our unresolvable moral differences tend to be superficial. For instance, while I strongly feel that eating meat and city families driving SUVs are examples of immoral behaviour, I recognise that living in a functioning society requires compromise. None of us have the luxury of demanding that society confirm completely to our relative moral vision.

    In regards to your question as to why we should respect private property, it’s because as a species we don’t have a choice. That is to say that possession is moral instinct endowed by evolution because it conferred a survival advantage. When you felt anger that your bikes had been stolen, that feeling originated from the same place as the anger that leads to African lions fighting over territory. Asking whether people should feel that anger is the same as asking whether people should have eyebrows. Even if you said they shouldn’t, would it change that they do?

    You needn’t worry about evolution substantially changing human psychology any time soon. Evolution is not a directed process, but merely occurs in response to environmental stresses (famine, disease, predators, etc), of which humanity is largely free of at the moment. If you don’t mind my going on a tangent, it is interesting to ask whether what we term “evil behaviour” confers a survival advantage. Although scientific evidence is lacking (evolutionary psychology is a very difficult field to obtain empirical data in), my strong suspicion is that it does. I first considered this when reading a book called “Nothing To Envy” by Barbara Demick which described the famines in North Korea. She reported survivors as stating that “amongst them the kind, the caring, the generous and merciful……these were the first to starve”. In times of starvation, what we term immoral behaviour may have conferred a survival advantage, and have been positively selected for. You might ask then, why would both moral and immoral behaviours be selected for? The answer is because evolution doesn’t work at the personal level, but rather at the population level. At the population level, heterogeneity allows a species to have adaptability to survive new challenges. For example, just as having great variability in immune systems means no one infection could kill us off, so could having moral variability in the population protect the species from any single challenge.

    I hope these comments help.

    Gender similarities reference:
    Hyde JS. The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist. 2005; 60 (6): 581-91.

    • Hi Travers! This is just a note to say that I have not forgotten about you — I just happen to be having a very busy weekend and haven’t been able to draft a worthy response to your comment. You may have noticed I have 6 kids on the go so I’m sure you can image how busy that can be! I will get back to you as soon as I can!

    • Hi Travers,

      I’m back :-). There is a lot I could reply to what you have written, but I think it would be helpful to me if I could clarify your position just a bit. Can you tell me, are you advocating:

      1. Individual Moral Relativism, ie. everyone should do what is right in his own eyes;
      2. Cultural Moral Relativism, ie. every society should do what is right in its own eyes; or
      3. Both?

      Thanks for the clarification!

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