This last week, I had the opportunity to do a collaboration with my friend Alex from the Cosmic Skeptic YouTube channel. We decided to tackle the question of morality (both its origin and nature). This is part two, covers the nature of morality, and was hosted on Alex’s channel.
Part one is more science based, and in it, Alex covers the nature of morality, and it was hosted on my channel. Below is the video and transcript.
Alex J. O’Connor: Good morning everybody. My name is Alex, but that doesn’t really matter much for this video, because you’re not going to be seeing much of this face. I’d like to introduce you to a YouTuber called Holy Koolaid. I’m sure some of you already know who he is. He’s a fantastic YouTuber with fantastic content, and I’m really excited to be collaborating with him on this topic of morality. So you’re about to watch a video which was put together by him, and if you like what you see, you can hop over to his channel (link will be in the description) where there will be a video by me discussing the origins of morality, and make sure to subscribe. I’m not going to talk for much longer. I hope you enjoy his content just as much as I do.
Thomas Westbrook: One of the most common critiques I get as an atheist is, “How can we have objective morals without God as your standard?” As if there are no other standards for morality than Divine Command and Natural Law Theory. Pulling the morality gun is the quickest way for a theist to dismiss all of the scientifically sound arguments an atheist makes about the lack of evidence for gods and their probable non-existence.
Hamza Andreas Tzortzis: Where is your standard? You don’t even have a standard? How can you come here and say these things are right and wrong, when you don’t even have a standard? I’m telling you, without god, your morality is meaningless.
Thomas Westbrook: It’s an ad hominem attack on character and nothing else. Asking how you can have an objectively moral framework without god is like asking how can you have an objectively good economic framework without the Monopoly guy. Even presuming that morality is objective, why does it have to come from God? How do we know that God is good?
Assuming a god exists, which I don’t, why do theists begin with the assumption that God is good. What if she was bad? How could you tell? If god was evil, but only ever did good things, then would he really be bad? And if he were good, but he only ever did evil things, would he still be good? You would have to be able to determine what makes an action good. Theists are often quick to say things like, “Who are you to judge the actions of god as moral or immoral?”
Christian street preacher: “How can you judge god as a creature?”
Thomas Westbrook: The same Christians who say that also believe we gained knowledge of right and wrong through original sin. They also claim we know right from wrong because, being made in the image of God, it’s in our nature. If morality is objective, never changing, and applies to all equally, which they claim it does, and if we know right from wrong, which they claim we do, then why can’t we hold the actions of god to that perfect, never-changing, objective moral standard? And when we do, we see that his actions, according to their holy book can be pretty messed up. The idea that god gets angry if you eat or wear the wrong thing seems awfully petty, and the notion that he enforces punishment against violators of his wishy-washy preferences is rather tyrannical.
If morality was perfectly laid out in their ancient books, why has it changed so much over time? Why are its rules so illogical, petty, and unjust? Most of the rules of the Old Testament, we don’t follow at all. Did God care so much about the Sabbath that, for centuries, breaking it ensured the death penalty, but then, suddenly, he changed his mind, and it’s OK to play tennis after dark on Fridays? That’s not objective! And why are his commands so selective? Does god care that the Jews don’t wear multi-fabric clothes, but for me it’s alright to wear boxers that are only %50 cotton? That’s not universal.
If objective morality is naturally ingrained in us as Thomas Aquinas proposed with Natural Law Theory, then why does it vary so much across cultures? Sure, rules like, “Don’t kill,” or “Don’t steal” arose independently across cultures, but so did human sacrifice, honor killings, polytheism, and religious orgies. You know something that’s not globally universal? Monotheism, an Orthodox approach to sexuality, the modern Judeo-Christian stance against abortion and euthanasia, bans against homosexuality, just to name a few. But it doesn’t stop there.
Here’s a bacon cheeseburger. It seems perfectly OK to most Protestant Christians, and to a Catholic, if it’s not during Lent. But the Muslims can’t have it if it comes with bacon, or at all on Ramadan during the daytime. The bacon bit goes for the Jews too, but it also has to be thoroughly cooked for them and can’t be rare or with cheese touching the meat, and, during Passover, the bread has to be unleavened. The Hindus will have to go with a bacon burger without the burger, because: holy cows. The Jains, Rastafarians, and Zoroastrians will avoid the meat altogether. Vedic Brahmins are going to have to pass on the Mushrooms and the Onions. Followers of Yazidism have got to avoid the lettuce. Oh, and the Mormons? They can eat the whole thing, as long as they don’t wash it down with a coke.
For creator of the universe, these god seems pretty finicky about the kind of calories we ingest. And while everyone’s freaking out about cheeseburger ingredients, Aghori monks in India live off of the cremated remains of people as part of their religious practices. People burgers!
Tell me again how morality is objective and absolute across all cultures. If you think that’s the case for even one second, then you’ve never traveled. Seriously why are moral “rules” different from one culture to the next if morality is ingrained in us and absolute? And why do we think that it’s a bad thing that our morality changes?
Morality continues to evolve and improve, thanks in large part to the Renaissance – to free-thinking scholars and philosophers of the enlightenment and contemporary, secular activists, which is a good thing! Religions had people sacrificing their children to the gods, and they thought that was ok. Our stance towards women, slaves, homosexuals, torture, and just about everything in-between has evolved, largely in the last century and a half.
The notion that the best moral guidelines we have were laid down thousands of years ago and haven’t changed since is grotesquely farcical! The problem with religion is that, while the rest of the world is upgrading and improving its morality to stay relevant in a rapidly developing world, religion – steeped in ever-souring moral refuse – is playing catchup. And it’s flat out embarrassing.
Now there are plenty of people who think morality is subjective. Contractarianism, as put forth by Thomas Hobbes, suggests that moral frameworks are determined by social contracts that we reason up and lay down, trading some of our anarchistic freedoms in exchange for the security of a functional society. Things are wrong because we agree that they’re wrong. But even if you disagree with this entire moral framework, altogether, there are plenty of others. You can even believe in objective morality without God, as Immanuel Kant did with his reason-based Categorical Imperatives. Or, as Act Utilitarians believe, you can view something as objectively moral if it promotes the most pleasure and avoids the most pain for the greatest amount of people. It’s not selfish or hedonistic, because it’s proposed in an other-focused framework.
It does present a dilemma, though. If five people have different organs failing, and you’re a match for all of them, under Act Utilitarianism, it would be moral to kill you, harvest your organs, and save the five. Rule Utilitarianism, however, addresses this by promoting pleasure and avoiding pain for the greatest amount of people, in the greatest number of circumstances over time. No-one wants to live in a world where they could be pulled at random from the street and organ-harvested. That would lead to greater, long-term suffering over time with all of us living on edge, in fear of losing our lives or our loved ones.
John Rawls further added to our understanding of moral philosophy in the following way. Imagine any situation, for example: slavery. You have to decide if slavery should be legal. Imagine you’re about to be born into a world where there’s a 50% chance that you could be either the slave or the master, and you don’t get to choose which. By wearing what Rawls referred to as the “veil of ignorance,” you have to make this choice blind, completely ignorant of your future. Having slaves may be convenient, but under the veil of ignorance, would you create a world in which slavery is legal, in which you could be the slave?
Now there are many other theories for how we derive morality, and no one completely agrees on what’s right and what’s wrong, all the time, how to determine it, and why. But the fact is, our models continue to improve. Is morality objective or subjective? Well it depends on your model. We have objective moral standards outside of god, but we also have subjective ones.
I’ve found the best way to look at morality is as the economics of the ethical world. There are some economic models that are better than others, and there may be a perfect system out there that leads to the most amount of wealth and least amount of poverty, but until we find it, we’re going to keep improving our economic models. In the same way, there may be a perfect, moral system that leads to the least suffering and the most well-being for the greatest number of people in the largest variety of scenarios. But until we find it, we’re going to keep improving our moral models.
And I’m glad that’s the case. I’m glad that most people don’t butcher each other to appease the gods – glad I can enjoy a bacon cheeseburger and a coke – glad we can come up with moral societies that enable us all to prosper without being so damn draconian! And I’m hopeful that through reason and critical thinking, things are only going to get better! The next time someone tells you, you can’t have morality without god, ask them why? Don’t be content with easy cop-out answers, and don’t drink the Koolaid.
Alex J. O’Connor:
So there you have it: Thomas Westbrook, of the YouTube channel, Holy Koolaid. I really hope that you enjoy his content as much as I do, and if you did, be sure to check out his channel. The link will be in the description, where there’s going to be a video by me, explaining the origins of morality. Be sure to subscribe, while you’re over there. Thomas makes fantastic content, but in the meantime, you can find me on social media here:
“Our best moral stories don’t tell us what is right or wrong in every situation, but they show us what one character did in one situation at one time. Readers, viewers, and listeners are supposed to extrapolate the moral meaning from the story. We’re not supposed to have it handed to us.” - Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
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