I just finished reading an article in the Irish Times by Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland.  Titled “Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality,” Nugent argues that the question of God’s existence is really just a distraction from the social need to determine what is right and wrong.  If there is no God, we must determine what we think is right and wrong.  And if God does exist, we still have to determine what it is that he/they thinks is right and wrong.  Either way, it is a human responsibility to determine right and wrong.

While one might expect for Nugent to go on to discuss how we should determine right and wrong irrespective of what we believe the foundation of morality to be, instead he goes on to critique moral theories that are based on the existence of God or gods!  Apparently he does think it makes a difference as to whether or not you believe morality is real or imagined, and based on God or in human will.  Through one side of his mouth Nugent claims the question of God’s existence is irrelevant to our quest for moral knowledge, but through the other side he says belief in God/gods will interfere with that quest.  How’s that for a self-contradiction!

As I read through articles I make mental comments to myself.  If I find an article interesting enough to preserve, I’ll copy it to Word and transcribe those mental comments in the margins.  So rather than quoting select portions of Nugent’s article and responding, I’ll reproduce his article below with my comments in red.


Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality

Michael Nugent, 10/18/11

In his Rite and Reason articles last July/August, Prof James Mackey’s central thesis is that the theory of evolution (which he describes as “Dawkins’s Darwinism”) is unfit to serve as a moral code for the human race. I agree. It is not. And no atheist that I know, particularly Richard Dawkins, has ever suggested that it is or should be or even could be. The theory of evolution describes how biological life evolves. Prof Mackey misunderstands the phrase “survival of the fittest” to imply that the physically strongest do not help the weak. The word “fittest” more accurately describes the beings that “fit” best into their environment. Helping the weak can be part of the symbiotic relationships that help species to thrive in many environments.

What then is morality? It is the ability to differentiate right from wrong, or good from bad? Does morality exist only in our minds? In practical terms, this is a distraction. If morality exists only in our minds, then we have to agree together what we believe it is. If morality exists independently of our minds, we have to identify together what we believe it is.

This is true in a practical sense, but what we identify as right and how we go about identifying it will be different depending on whether or not we believe in objective moral values.  If we think morality is a social invention, then why not just identify what is right by polling what people in society believe, and consider the majority to be right?  Or why not just seek out the opinions of the intellectually enlightened and adopt that?  But if we think morality is objective, then all of the means previously mentioned may be instructive and interesting, but it won’t tell us what is right.  Indeed, what we see as the ontological grounding for such objective moral values will also effect what we come to identify as the good, or the means by which we go about the process of identifying the good.  If the ontological foundation is the Platonic realm of Forms, then we will have to discover what is right philosophically.  If a personal divine being is the ontological foundation for objective moral values, then we’ll have to figure out how we can discover those, or if they have been revealed in some holy book. 

In practical terms, this is the same task: we have to decide together what we believe to be right and wrong.

So far he is only dealing with moral epistemology, not the more important question of moral ontology.

So what criteria should we use? Most religious people believe that their god (small ‘g’) dictates what is right and wrong. Most atheists believe that we have to work it out ourselves. But listening to what you believe gods tell you causes two problems.

Firstly, different people believe that different gods are telling them that different things are right and wrong. Even when people believe in the same god, they often believe that this same god is telling them that different things are right and wrong.

This is true, but he is still speaking in terms of moral epistemology.  While this is a valid problem, it’s not the most important one.  The most important question is to determine if morality is real or imaginary.  If it is real we must determine if it is rooted in a deity or something else.  If it is rooted in a deity, then which god is it and how do we know what he knows about morality?

Secondly, there is the question that Plato raised in his dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro: if you believe in a god, what criteria does your god use to decide what is right and wrong?

Finally, he addresses the ontological question, but he is still framing it as an epistemological question.

Do gods cause random torture to be wrong, based on an arbitrary decision, or do they identify that random torture is wrong, based on independent criteria? If it is the former, then they could just as easily have decided that random torture is right, and so morality is arbitrary. If it is the latter, then there is a foundation for morality that exists independently of gods.

This brings religious people into the same place as atheists in seeking to identify the foundation of morality.

No, not theists.  For them this is a false dilemma because it does not consider the possibility that the good is rooted in the very nature of God as the metaphysical ultimate.

Many atheists believe that the best criteria to use is: what effect does this action have on the well-being or suffering of sentient beings? The neurobiologist Sam Harris examines this in his recent book, The Moral Landscape. He argues that the worst possible world is one in which all conscious beings are suffering to the maximal extent for no reason. He argues that, in principle, every step away from that world is right, and every step towards that world is wrong.

In this context, religion distracts us from identifying right and wrong because religious commands are not based on maximising the well-being or minimising the suffering of sentient beings.

Perhaps, if you assume that Harris’ understanding of morality is the correct one.  But that must be demonstrated, not just assumed.  Furthermore, it is not true that religious morality (of which there are many different systems) is not concerned with maximizing well-being and minimizing suffering of sentient beings.  They may differ on what precisely minimizes suffering and maximizes well-being, but most religions do consider this in their moral theory.

Instead, they corrupt actual real-life morality with imaginary ideas of supernatural souls and imaginary consequences in an imaginary afterlife.

Who is to say what “real-life morality” is?  I thought we weren’t sure if morality is real or imagined.  If morality is imagined, then it is impossible to corrupt it, because it is not anything in particular to begin with.  And I fail to see how the idea that we have souls is able to corrupt morality.  As for consequences in the afterlife, this is often a motivation for people to behave better in this life, not worse.

Certainly, the Christian Bible distracts us from identifying right and wrong, because the Christian god conveys instructions that we intuitively know are wrong.

This is a typical claim by the new atheists.  Not only does God not exist, but He is evil.  While the merits of Biblical morality could be debated, that would take too much space here.  What I would like to point out is that while Nugent seems to think morality is imagined (in our minds, rather than something that exists in reality), here he speaks of things that are objectively wrong.  If morality is all imagined, there is no basis on which to claim that one persons’ imagined morality is better than another’s.  That would be like saying Star Wars is truer than Lord of the Rings.  Both are fictions, so neither can be closer to the truth.

The Bible says we should love our neighbour, but stone him to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.

The assumption here is that there is a conflict between love and punishment for disobedience.  Any parent knows that this is a false distinction.

How do we know that we are correct? We don’t. Whether we are religious or not, we can only go by our best efforts to decide together what is right and wrong. Religion assumes that man is incapable of making moral decisions without supernatural guidance.

No it doesn’t.  And unfortunately Nugent keeps speaking of “religion” in the abstract, but there is no such thing as “religion.”  There are many religions, and they differ from one another greatly.  The Christian religion, for example, does not teach that we cannot make moral decisions apart from divine guidance (which I understand him to mean revelation).  We believe God has made us in His image, and thus we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong via our conscience.  All men can know this wholly apart from any divine revelation.

But we are. It is a skill, and our understanding of it evolves as we practise empathy and reciprocity.

Why assume that empathy and reciprocity are moral goods?  If morals are in our minds, why not think these are evil and judgmentalism and selfishness are good?  If that is the ethic someone chooses for himself, who are you to say they are wrong?  If morals are just personal/social preferences, then no one can say any moral system is wrong.  We can say we do not personally prefer it, but why should anyone else care what we prefer?  I prefer vanilla to chocolate.  I have no reason to care about the person who complains that they don’t like vanilla.  I do.  End of story.  You eat your chocolate, and I’ll eat my vanilla.  You live by the principle of reciprocity, and I’ll live by the principle of what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.  Neither is right, and thus neither is wrong.  They are just different.  And there’s no way to adjudicate between them.