Although most people have no idea what philosophers have to say about morality that doesn’t deter them from discussing philosophical ramifications of morality. In particular many people want to argue for one of the following:
- Objective morality requires God.
- Morality is relative.
- Nothing really matters.
Most philosophers disagree with any of the above claims, but for some reason many other people seem to easily agree with them.1 I will briefly describe how I view morality and why I personally disagree with the above claims.
How I view morality
Morality is about making good choices that promotes certain goods rather than impedes them. Most people accept that certain goods, such as human life and happiness, are the sorts of goods that should be promoted and shouldn’t be impeded.
Ethics is the philosophy of morality. It is through ethics that we can reason about morality and justify moral beliefs. For example, we can reason about which goods are worthy of morality and the best way to accomplish such goals. How to accomplish our goals can be a scientific endeavor (i.e. drinking water is necessary to healthy), but deciding which goals are worthy is more difficult.
I believe that moral beliefs, if true, refer to facts about the world.
An example of a moral fact is that “torturing people willy nilly” is wrong because we know that pain is bad from our personal experiences of pain.
Additionally, I endorse intrinsic values. What can make a goal morally worthy is somewhat controversial in the academic world, but I believe that morally worthy goals promote intrinsic values. I not only know that pain is bad, but I know that pain really matters. I shouldn’t cause others pain even if it would benefit me to do so because everyone’s pain has negative value.
Objective morality requires God.
I’m not exactly sure what most people think “objective morality” or “objective value” refers to, but the main idea that most people seem to have in mind is that we have moral rules that apply to everyone. Morality in that sense is universal.
To say that “objective morality requires God” is pretty much synonymous with saying that “universal moral rules would be meaningless unless God exists.” God is taken to be a supernatural foundation for morality. Either God is an ideal person that manifests perfect virtues or God is a law maker who makes the moral laws for us to follow.
Why do I disagree that “God is necessary for morality?”
One, as far as I can tell, the fact that pain is bad has nothing to do with God’s virtues or commands. If I found out that God doesn’t exist, I would certainly still think that torturing people willy nilly is wrong because I would still accept that pain is bad.
Two, as far as I can tell, I don’t know anything about morality from God’s virtues. I have never seen God and I don’t know anything about his virtues. It seems to me that I can’t learn about morality by observing God. Even if I did observe God and somehow decided that God has a virtue of causing pain, I would still think that pain is bad. God’s so-called nature and perfection couldn’t convince me that pain isn’t bad.
Three, as far as I can tell, I don’t know morality through God’s commandments. If God didn’t command us not to cause pain, I would still think torturing people willy nilly is wrong. If God commanded me to torture people willy nilly, I would still think it would be wrong to do so.
For more information about why I don’t think objective morality requires God, you might want to take a look at my ebook, Does Morality Require God?
Morality is relative.
Many people accept that God is necessary for “objective morality” but they reject that God exists. The result for some is that they think morality is relative or subjective rather than objective.It might be that pain is bad for me, but it’s good for someone else. This tends to mean two things: (1) We can’t reason about morality because it’s just a matter of taste. (2) Morality is merely indoctrinated behavior regulation.
When we say that pain is bad for me but not bad for someone else, it could merely mean that I dislike pain and someone else likes it. Reason is then irrelevant to morality. We can’t say that I’m right and you’re wrong because there is no objective truth to morality. There are no moral facts that we can try to learn about.
Why do I disagree that “morality is relative?”
One, we know that we can reason about morality, but relativists deny that we can reason about morality. For example, I can reason that your pain is bad for the same reason that my pain is bad.2 I can also reason that to say that “my pain is bad, but no one else’s pain is bad” is absurd.
It is not controversial that moral reasoning is possible as is illustrated by the fact that (1) we accept that moral progress is possible and (2) we accept that our moral beliefs can be false. We can have moral progress, such as outlawing slavery. We can find out that our moral beliefs are false, such as the belief that slavery should be legal when we now know that slavery should be illegal.
Two, there are uncontroversial universal moral facts, but moral relativists must deny that there are such facts, such as the fact that torturing people willy nilly is wrong.
Nothing really matters.
Many non-philosophers are content to be moral relativists, but relativism requires that we accept that nothing really matters (which is often called “nihilism”).3 In other words they reject intrinsic values. I think this is one of the main reasons that theists are not satisfied with relativism. If nothing really matters, then what’s the point in being moral? There isn’t any.
Much of the debate involving morality and God is the idea that atheists can’t be moral. Certainly atheists can act morally just like anyone else, but theists then insist that atheists can’t be moral in the sense that morality itself is delusional for the atheist. The atheist couldn’t be rationally moral. Being moral would not longer be rational and could even be irrational.
I agree that it is rational to be moral because something really matters, but I don’t think that has anything to do with God. I think pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad because I have first hand experience with these things, not because of God’s virtuous ideal nature or commandments. If God commanded us to hurt each other, then I would think God was wrong to do so. I would think that pleasure has intrinsic value and pain has intrinsic disvalue no matter what God is like.
Why do I disagree with the proposition that “nothing really matters?”
One, I have already briefly described why I think pleasure and pain involve intrinsic values. I don’t think that pleasure is merely desired, but I think that pleasure is desired because we know it’s good. I also discuss many arguments in favor of intrinsic values here.
Two, some of our commitments concerning morality seem to require us to accept that intrinsic values exist. Consider the following:
(1) We are committed to the fact that one should choose to care about people if given the choice not to care. If morality isn’t objective, then we could imagine that we could find out that our feelings delude us into caring for people. We might be able to learn to stop having empathy for others and stop allowing our moral feelings to control us. We could then learn to live without morality. There would be nothing irrational with doing such a thing because morality would be delusional to begin with.
(2) The word “ought” itself seems to indicate that morality is objective because it indicates that one action is right or wrong no matter what I personal believe or desire. If I ought to do something, then it is good to do it. However, if morality is just a group of arbitrary rules that people tend to care about, then the word “ought” would merely indicate that some behavior follows those rules better than others. But so what? In that case I ought to help others only in the sense that I have a tendency to like people to help others. That wouldn’t be any more important than following rules of etiquette.
All three of these views seem to give God’s connection to morality too much credit, and many people reject objective morality almost entirely because they reject God’s existence. However, that’s not to say that any of this makes any sense. This isn’t an issue for many contemporary philosophers at all. Almost no philosophers agree that morality requires God or that morality is relative. There are some philosophers who think that nothing really matters but philosophers will usually insist that we can reason about morality. Morality might be objective even if nothing really matters.
My understanding of morality involves reasoning and worthy goals, and these elements seem easy enough to understand with common sense alone. God doesn’t seem to help the situation, and relativism fails to consider that we reason about morality. People who reject intrinsic values can often reason about morality, but they must reject certain non-controversial facts concerning the nature of morality, such as morality’s importance.
1 Some contemporary philosophers do endorse moral relativism, but their view is still much different than the relativism endorsed by most non-philosophers. For example, a philosopher might think that we can reason about moral goals, and moral goals are maximally worthy when they are based on maximal non-moral knowledge. People who know everything about the world can certainly make the most informed moral judgments, but philosophical relativists insist that moral judgments could be different for each person.
2 Atheism and ignorance are not the only motivations for moral relativism. Some people also endorse relativism because they think such a position is “tolerant” and will help them get along with others. Instead of saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” the relativist can say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” I am not impressed with this line of reasoning because it gives up too easily and decides not to argue about morality just because it can help make friends and so forth. The position is ultimately against philosophy itself because it tells us not to think too much about morality and just take things at face value.
3 The view that “nothing really matters” is accepted by some contemporary philosophers, but such philosophers are not relativists as relativism is described above, and such philosophers almost unanimously believes that we can reason about morality.