Written by Jesse Heymann
This is a very nebulous topic and you don’t want to leave anything out, because just like a mathematical equation where a missing step could render the final answer completely wrong, a misstep or omission in the logic thought process leads to logical fallacies or factual errors and the whole thing crumbles down.
So where does good come from? How do we start it? For our purposes, “good” being the standard concepts of good, like your average rules in a democratic society: don’t rape. Don’t kill. Don’t rob… u know, those general things. Not to say someone following state rules can’t still be a crappy person, that’s a chat for another day. But these are generally points where codified rules and modern standards of basic morality tend to intersect, so for examples of good, these are fairly uncontroversial points of reference. These are our test materials. So let’s go to work.
Hang on, hang on… Before we start, I’m aware not all atheists or secularists are a monolith. So for avoidance of doubt this essay is not to those who think there’s no moral objectivity in reality at all. Also by secularism, I’m not referring to liberal values used to promote tolerance in a society. Here I mean people of any non-religious system of belief, who also believe morals and ethics are wholly independent from the metaphysical. Whew… okay… now let’s begin.
This first question is fairly uncomplicated. The early organisms and humans found points of reference outside any transcendent religious explanations. Let’s count them down:
There’s Contractarianism: he’s a nice dude, he doesn’t kill me. Hence I’ll reciprocate the courtesy, and not cause any trouble back. Or it’s a nice town, no one steals from me or robs, so why steal or rob these nice people?
Or Consequentialism: That king is pretty powerful. If I steal or kill, there will be consequences. Or that mans got a big clan with big men and a lot of weapons. We don’t want retaliation so we don’t cause trouble. Or in our modern context: “I don’t want to go to jail.”
Or the mere fact that organisms thrive better when they aren’t in a state of constant fear of life or in attack mode, and they can rest and reproduce. So there is as much an inclination for mutual co-operation in men as there is to be destructive. Or on a more basic emotional level, people like to be liked.
Or our innate tribal instincts to trust and like the familiar – Mr. A looks like me, shares my culture, lives in my town, speaks my language. It’s a collective bond with all people like Mr. A. So we don’t harm each other.
Or Habituation, which is probably the most influential driver to morality most people don’t realize. You grew up being told not to steal, so when left alone with someone’s property, your habituation will mean you most likely will not. Conversely, if someone has been stealing his whole life, he’s more likely to swipe someone’s property the next time, than not. Most times when people say they wouldn’t up and behead people without religion, this is what they mean.
All this is fine. In fact, 9 times out of 10, an individual will be looped into any one or more of these factors and will do good things without any form of divine decree. That’s all well and good. And in our modern society with law enforcement, friends, family and organised society, one could live a full life in the moral gravitational field of any of the above, and a notion of a God never has to cross your mind. And for all intents and purposes, you would be a good person. But what if a person or society didn’t though? But before we explore that, lets dive into some atheism.
ATOMS WITHOUT A CAUSE
Your entire existence is as a result of a cosmic lottery. There’s no divine purpose. You are here, because millennia of natural selection and material cause and effect have brought you here. Your consciousness, or what you perceive as consciousness, is a beneficial evolutionary adaptation, or a graphic user interface to arrange and make sense of the millions of neurons firing in your brain. Materially speaking, you have no more metaphysical reason for you existing than the average ant or fish. You didn’t remember anything or feel anything before you were born, and you won’t feel or remember anything after you die. But this is great. Because it means you can decide your own purpose. You can decide your own destiny. The possibilities are endless, and that’s liberating. Its empowering knowing you only have one shot at this life game.
THOSE WHO FELL IN THE CRACKS
How about those who don’t fall into the orbit of the catalysts for good morals? What if, out of the million possibilities of a purposeless existence, they chose cruelty and resentment? They were not habituated at all, or they were habituated to be nasty people. They don’t care for the negative consequence of bad actions. Co-operation with other organisms in a given circumstance is not in their best interest. He has no collective bond with the people in that environment. Or a particular society has done no good to him (or a group of people), for him or them to be obligated to reciprocate.
Under secular morality, such a person has no moral obligation or accountability for that act. Keep in mind, in a purposeless nihilistic framing of the world, it creates no obligation to align your purpose towards good. It just tells you the brute fact that the universe and existence has no inherent meaning. It creates no obligations as to what to do with that information. And a person would be just as justified in interpreting that as a reason to be resentful and bad as someone would be to be empowered towards spreading happiness.
Like I said, our society has evolved the above moral safety nets that we discussed that can order your life towards good without all that transcendental baggage. But what if a person or an entire society chose not to? Like Nazi Germany 2.0. There’s nothing objective, in the absence of those nets, which says “that is wrong”.
But New Age atheists have thought about this, because they too realised the potential psychopathic and savage implications of that worldview, and have developed some responses to that. So let’s look at them.
The main one, is an ideology which seeks to derive values from facts, so called axiomatic ought’s: something which is true, because it just is. Like “fish ought to swim”.
An offshoot of that to solve this problem is by atheist thinker Matt Dillahunty (which he has since moved from since I heard him last), that;
“It is better to be alive than dead” Meaning it’s an objective truth that living is better than dying. And then you can logically deduce fundamental ethical laws from this objective truth.
There are many flaws with this premise. As much as most people want to be alive rather than dead, it’s not always true they think same is good for for everyone else; dangerous criminals, for one. Or a person with the means to ruin your life. Relative to other people, it’s not always true that wellbeing is improved with everyone alive. Even that personal feeling for life is by no means universal. 800,000 people commit suicide every year. That’s about one every 40 seconds. It’s also not been true for most of human history, for one. Almost every major early civilization practiced human sacrifice for thousands of years, like the Mayans, Chinese, Aztecs, Incas, Egyptians, parts of Japan and many African and Polynesian tribes. And it’s not true for majority of animal species on the planet, many of whom eat each other without a moments pause. If that objective truth is not always true, even for self-preservation, or for society at large, how is it true in a material sense? If it wasn’t always true, but we developed it to make life easier, because it does make modern life much easier, then it’s not objectively true: something that exists outside the opinions of an observer. If it was always there, but we just discovered it later, then that’s a metaphysical argument of values existing in the universe.
Another version of this is that, all humans are inherently morally valuable because they are human. Again the same objections hold. For 90% plus of human history we’ve sure as hell not acted like it. So it’s not objectively true. And if it was but we just discovered it later, then it was metaphysically true. And it’s contradictory to the whole foundation of; the purposeless universe. A person or society should be able to count themselves worthless if they felt like it. Thankfully, we have some tribalistic affinity to each other by virtue of being human, or by virtue of our social relationships. Mattering to other people can make us also feel like we do. So this doesn’t always happen. But if this safety was off (including the previously mentioned ones), where would the obligation to think I was valuable and the moral accountability for not thinking so, lie? A person is just as justified for deciding they are not.
Another version of this is by Sam Harris, is that is that if you took the worst form of sensory pain, and the best form of sensory pleasure, every human would experience it the same way. So pain is objectively bad, and pleasure objectively good. And hence, deduce your value system from that. This is mostly true, but it doesn’t work as a moral axiom. It creates no obligation to give a damn about a stranger’s pain, or peoples whose pain would maximally enhance your individual pleasure more than the cost of their pain. Harris swears up and down that his theory of wellbeing is not utilitarianism, but he so often dips from that well, as he did here. Most of the rebuttals to utilitarianism would work here, and I highly suggest further reading. (this isn’t the body of Sam’s ideology, just his take on this specific issue)
2. There ARE objective values, but they just are. There was no intentionality to their origin.
Take a game of chess. It’s made by humans, and we made up the rules. But yet humans still discovered new skills as time went on, on how to win without anyone deliberately putting them there, and made new rules to make the game better.
That is true, but the fundamental axioms on how the game should be played had design and intentionality. And those later rules and neat skills we evolved later in the game were as a result of trying to carry out the fundamental axioms of the game. So the base of the pyramid is still intention. If the game had no deliberate fundamental axioms, any new skill you created would effectively be gibberish. Unless you had an agreement with someone beforehand by the exchange of meaningful information as to what the ground rules ought to be.
Patterns can emerge out of chaos, that much is true, in the organization of inanimate particles. Order in matter can arise of the randomness. But never does the universe create values. What would a universe based on survival of the fittest have need for ‘Don’t steal’ or ‘Don’t rape’. And we are the only species with this high level of moral complexity. Higher consciousness seems like a better explanation. But a conception in your consciousness alone wouldn’t make it objectively true.
3. Who cares if it transcends the material, so long as you’re doing good?
This is true. It shouldn’t matter. If there was a God anyway and you did all he wanted why would he be mad? But if there’s a person or society doing something objectionable, with no cause to be tied down by our aforementioned reference points for making secular moral judgement, what says “that is bad”, beyond the fact that Island A chose to live their life this way and Island B didn’t.
Now, the argument most secular humanists trot out here is that if Island B lives a sucky life and dies out, that is objectively bad. Because they died, and that’s bad for wellbeing. But here they pre-suppose wellbeing as a goal to strive for. But in a purposeless universe, all rules are off. My self-destructive life is just as justified as your optimistic nihilism, because the only ground rule is to make out your own purpose.
4. We’re a long way from the Apocalypse
Finally, is that all the hypotheticals and what not, is unnecessary fussing. We’re not in the Stone Age. States and their accompanying laws cover almost every surface of the earth. There’s enough consequences, habituation, need for co-operation and what not to hold humanity secure till the cold death of the universe. And that’s true. In many ways, you can life a great, kind life without thinking about metaphysics. But the abyss isn’t as far as people think. We live in a world of with a murder rate of 6.9 per every 100,000 people. That’s about 500,000 people every year. About 3.7 burglaries happen every year. From 65 countries, 250,000 cases of rape are reported every year.
The moral abyss exists in microcosms all around us, on a daily basis. People for whom these reasons to just be good didn’t add up. Whether factually true or not (more likely not, since humans are notorious for acting against the weight of reason and common sense), these people reached that point. And this includes people who have divine foundations in morality as well. But the point is, the hypothetical isn’t so hypothetical when you look at the moral depravity and dark pits that people can fall in, all around us in life. And exploring these questions can help us change how we talk to people about this stuff, or at least realise that the new age humanist movement doesn’t have all the bases covered either. Or to work to improve secular humanism. But it’s important to know the gap exists.
Till then, for most humanists we are left with a sleight of hand card trick, where you keep the pre-suppositions of transcendental morality and throw out the supreme being part. As conservative commentator Ben Shapiro terms it in his book, it’s a kind of “cheating”.
Final objection, is that this doesn’t lead us to any religions god. Yes, that is true. That would take about two or three more essays. That is not my aim here at all. But it should avert your mind to the metaphysics of values, and that maybe, just maybe, there’s more to it all than just material.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jesse Heymann is an aspiring lawyer, author and pop culture enthusiast, studying at the Ghana School of law.