Must God exist for you to know what is right?

“Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction …and any deeper meaning is illusory.”*
—————

People can do whatever they wish regardless of the truth or falsehood of any “God hypothesis”. People can define “right and wrong” without any deity informing them of it. However, they tend not to define “right” all that often. In the absence of a culturally-accepted deity theory, society tends toward legalism, restriction, and repression rather than freedom and liberty.

Therefore, if one should embrace “right” and deny “God”, one should hold freedom and liberty as among the highest ideals, lest the consequences of their disbelief destroy them.

Speaking for my own self, I prefer to live in a universe where there is a deity, and where Right and Wrong are absolutes that are entirely consistent. Since I can choose to believe this, and since I do prefer it, I see no problem in so doing. Moreover, I think it makes me a better person (albeit, perhaps, a bit boring) and the world a slightly better place because of it.

But that’s just my opinion there. I’m not saying it’s better than yours — well, actually I am, but only because I wouldn’t choose to adopt the second-best opinion if I had a choice — but don’t let that bother you. Your opinion must be valid for the same reason mine is: You’ve spent a long time thinking about it and considering alternatives. Otherwise, you wouldn’t still be here, reading this.

While there are several cultural exceptions, for the most part, we all tend to assert the same things as “wrong” (and, occasionally, we even agree on “right”), and we tend to believe that others should think as we do. This implies that, as a general rule, we tend to believe collectively in the existence of an absolute — and that our collective beliefs about that absolute are astoundingly similar. This suggests either:
(1) similar parallel needs on the part of the individuals or
(2) the presence of an absolute which is sensed, somehow, by those who assert it.

I’m not convinced that an active social contract is sufficient, even with evolutionary forces at work, to spontaneously generate (1).

“Thou Shalt Not Kill.”**

While this seems simple enough, it can be problematic — isn’t an animal or a plant alive? Granting that it’s more appropriate to translate the original Hebrew word ratsach as “murder” (instead of “kill”), we soon run into difficulties. Shortly after the death of Moses, the Twelve Tribes of Israel made war to conquer for themselves their “Promised Land”. What is this except for murder by divine decree? For those who prefer to assign the responsibility to Joshua, it is authorized warfare.

Is it, therefore, justifiable to commit murder in the name of the state?

“Patriotism is the vice of nations.”*** Regardless of the urges of our countries (in the flawed persons of their representatives), we are all ourselves. We must always live as ourselves, and we are all always responsible to ourselves for our own actions.

That’s true whether there’s a God or not.

Is it OK to kill for a cause? No; not ever. I have more respect for a casual random murder; at least then, it’s not tarted up and put on display to be lauded by the masses. On the other hand, it is positively virtuous to kill those who would kill your brothers-in-arms; any soldier takes on himself that burden as a willing sacrifice to them. A general or a statesman has the greatest burden of them all, it seems to me — and I’m very glad I’m not one.

But even that raises questions: We live in a quasi-democracy. Is it not our duty to constantly protest wars? Should we not go to great lengths to encourage those who represent us to do what we would have them do — even if this demands of us the ultimate sacrifice, which would be to join them?

“The principal ground of reproach against any American citizen should be that he is not a politician. Everyone ought to be, as Lincoln was.”

Elihu Root, “Lincoln as a Leader of Men”

NOTES:
Title from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols”
Arguments from Acquinas, Rousseau, CS Lewis
* Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in “The Darwinian Paradigm” (Routledge, London, 1989)
** Exodus 20:13, King James Version of the Bible (1769 Blaney revision)
*** Oscar Wilde, letter. Commonly misquoted as “Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious.”

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2 comments

  1. You’re assuming of course that there actually are morals that are universally shared, which I do not believe exist. The most common one mentioned, as you do, is about murder. However, there are numerous people, I daresay, the majority of people, believe it is wrong to kill one of your own, but not that big a deal to kill those not in your group. We see that displayed the world over every single day. Thus, even the idea of murder being wrong is relative. There are even people who do not see killing someone in one’s own family wrong. There are sadly many people who are killed by family members because they did not follow the dictates of the head of the household. It is easy to claim they are simply aberrations, but in truth, they are simply farther down the bell curve of a continuity of behaviors than most of us.
    For me, I have seen far too many people justify heinous acts in the name of religion to have much use for it. I find the Golden Rule handles almost everything. Do unto others as one would have done to themselves. I do not wish people to rob and murder me; therefore, I do not rob and murder others. I want people to play fair with me; therefore, I play fair with others. And yes, freedom and liberty are high ideals, limited in the main by actions that would harm others either directly or indirectly. No one can be completely free to do as they will if they want to live in a society with other people. Out of respect for others, one has to have limits on one’s behaviors:)

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    1. I actually do assert that there exists, if not a strict code of morality, at least a general ethic that transcends race and culture. It is not complex; it recognizes no “sabbath” and honors no taboos. Individual shibboleths are meaningless to it.

      But the basic premise is one that I’ve observed repeatedly, in dozens of cultures: My rights stop where yours start.

      I would not venture to suggest that this is universally practiced; in truth, it can largely be observed in default. When something is stolen in a market, a cry is raised of “Thief!” — at least in those cultures which recognize property, which is the overwhelming majority of them, despite the myths of Hollywood and sensational literature. (“The Gods Must Be Crazy”, for instance, shows us a gentle and peaceable culture where in reality it’s often one of murder and brutality.)

      No, I’m not saying that people are naturally good to one another. I’m saying instead that, where they are not, they know it. Some revel in their personal power to dominate others; there is naught to revel in without the knowledge of what that power means.

      Your “golden rule” originated in the Christian bible, but it’s a logical necessity for any who observes the underlying premise and approves of it. “My rights end where yours begin.” If anyone wishes to act in favor of that, they will follow a rule that approaches the golden one; that’s merely an adaptation which permits us to act despite our limited perspectives, our inability to see truly what another thinks, knows, or feels.

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