Wednesday, 20 February 2008

A moral universe

We're getting a bit of a theme going...
In each of these posts, we've been doing the same thing. Take an aspect of reality and ask the question - "Which understanding of reality as a whole best fits with this particular feature?". I want to do that again - this time with morality.

Morality - what it is

The essence of morality as morality is "ought". You ought to do this, because...

Morality is an essential part of human experience. It appears to be almost impossible to escape from. Without thinking about it or questioning it, we daily weigh up different courses of action on the basis of right or wrong. We get offended or annoyed because someone else has violated the standard. We handle the concepts of right and wrong as if they are obvious, universal and handed down to us from heaven on a plate. Which is because they were, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Though we often find it difficult to work out exactly where the line dividing right from wrong is, and will sometimes have to change our minds, we never question that the dividing line actually exists or that we ought to land on the "right" side of it. We treat our consciences not as if they were the ultimately meaningless off-shoot of a random evolutionary process, but as reliable guides to "ought". When somebody does manage to escape from morality and decide that they will do whatever the heck they please without feeling the slightest pang of remorse or asking any moral questions about it, we call them a psychopath. We then lock them in a locked room with no handle on the inside, before they hurt us.

Morality - what it isn't

It's important to note that morality can't just be collapsed into pragmatics. The moral imperative of ought does not mean the same as the practical guideance of this is a better strategy. It's not just about choosing a choice that helps the species to survive. This is just to turn morality into a matter of guesswork (for the future depends on many things we can't yet see) and personal preference (one man would like to see different characteristics of our species survive than the next). Hitler believed he foresaw a better future for Germany if he cleansed it of Jews, black people and the disabled. His morality, his "ought", then became that we ought to shovel those people groups into the ovens and gas chambers. This though isn't how morality works - as the rest of the world then sought to teach him. To say that morality is really a matter of "doing this or that because it works out better that way" is really to deny that morality exists at all - it turns moral statements into meaningless statements, mere truisms. "We ought to do this because it'll be better that way" is a redundant non-statement. Why will it be better? The point of morality is that "we ought to do this because there is an objective, real line dividing right and wrong which is greater than us, beyond us and makes demands of us which we must yield to". There is no real "ought" without that objective element.

So, we live in a moral universe. Or at least, all people everywhere, until they turn into psychopaths, behave as if that were a non-negotiable given. The question now, of course, is to ask which view of reality can best explain that fact of reality? What system of belief best accounts for the way that we live?

How to account for it?

It surely isn't atheism or agnosticism. Atheism posits a material universe - one in which everything can ultimately be boiled down to matter/energy. There's no "ought" there. Sure, Hitler gassing the Jews might reduce the diversity of the gene pool, which could be a bad thing. On the other hand, though, in the struggle for survival we need the weak to be eliminated so that the scarce resources are used optimally. Those with defective genes who can't impose their will on others are doomed to destruction by the principles of natural selection in any case, so there's nothing unnatural or wrong about being part of that process - it's inevitable. And in any case, under the atheistic view of reality, there's really no difference between millions of people by Hitler being gassed and millions of bacteria being wiped out by Mumma Anderson when she gets the disinfectant out. According to the atheist, the bacteria and the Jews are part of the same one family tree - we're not a special creation, but are developed from the same roots. They took this branch, we took that - and at the end of the day we're both matter/energy. The only "ought" is ultimately "I like it that way" for the atheist. Atheism can come up with some quite creative "just so" stories to make morality seem plausible - but it cannot account for the fundamental nature of morality that human beings take for granted from day to day.

Agnosticism, whether hard or soft, fares no better. Uncertainty is no basis for morality. Nobody can live their life in a consistent way from day to day if the whole basis of our beings and actions is indeterminate or up for grabs. If morality is an "ought" on Monday, it has to be so on Tuesday as well. That's its nature. We can't say that gassing our fellow men is a gross sin that violates inflexible laws on Wednesday and then decide that we're just super-evolved bacteria anyway on Thursday. Neither can we just go and shut ourselves up in a nice secluded part of the universe where it doesn't make any difference whether morality is real or not - we have to live our lives day by day. Agnostics, leaving out the pyschopaths, are all precisely as inconsistent as the atheists are - they live as if morality were real, but without being able to justify it.

The image of God

On the other hand, if we start with the assumption that the Bible gives us an accurate account of reality, then morality is accounted for very easily. Human beings are a unique creation, made by God to reflect parts of his own being - that is, we are made "in the image of God". God is himself all righteousness, all moral goodness and perfection. He does right at all times, and hates what is evil with a perfect and holy hatred. He made us to do the same - though we don't, because of our rebellion against him. Morality is treated by us as an essential component of the fabric of the universe because it is - God made a moral universe. We treat right and wrong as if they were real phenomena and not just abstract inventions, because they are. We can live life as if morality were an essential component of it, and our consciences as if they were saying something we need to listen to, because that is actually how it is. Human beings, whether they choose to espouse this set of values or that one have to ultimately espouse some set of values, because God has made them moral beings. Even in rejecting God's revelation of right and wrong in the Bible, we have to choose some other standard of right or wrong - and it'll have to be something that at least approximates the Biblical one - because that's the way we're made. We can no more get away from it than we can grow a second head or grow fur; it's not how we're put together.

Can't get away from it...

And hence atheists, even though they reject the Creator's standard, still feel that it's really necessary for them to explain how atheism might support morality. It's really hard to get away from their constitution as divine image-bearers and instead argue that morality actually is arbitrary and man-made. Even if some of them might admit that in their writings, they find it hard to live out. When someone punches their wife in the face, not many atheists will say "So? We're just a re-arrangement of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen", even if they managed to admit it in in theory. Atheism isn't a creed that you can actually put into practice in a consistent way - you have to keep on living as if Christianity were true instead.

This is a moral universe. Atheism cannot account for that fact, and atheists and agnostics must live inconsistently with their belief system. Christianity accounts for this fact very easily, and the Christian does not need to feel daily pain in living inconsistently with his own assumptions. He just needs to feel the daily pain of not living up to the mark which God sets - and going to Jesus for forgiveness. The conclusion is obvious!

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