Chapter 7: Why I Believe in Moral Absolutes
Note: At this point, my hard-working little laptop computer died for good. Fortunately, I had backups of my finished work (chapters 1 through 6 and the Appendices), and work-in-process (chapter 7). However, all of my references and my collection of notes covering subsequent chapters, painstakingly gathered over four months, were lost. I will combine into a single essay the chapters remaining after this one.
This chapter of Why I Believe is probably the strongest one in the book. Dr. Kennedy does a decent job describing various moral systems, and he makes a fairly good case, with only a few glaring weaknesses, for the moral system offered by Christianity. He is right to criticize Christians for failing to bother their heads with an understanding of various moral philosophies, including their own. I would recommend a study of diverse philosophies to anyone, especially nonbelievers, for such a study provides firm ground to stand on when confronted by the onslaughts of fanatical religious zealots.
Kennedy gives adequate, if brief, descriptions of some of the prevalent ethical systems, but his interpretation of them leaves something to be desired. He rails against astrology and behavioristic psychology as being deterministic systems, without realizing that his own ethical system includes an omniscient god, which arguably makes his system deterministic by setting up God as an outside controlling force, trivializing the free will Kennedy venerates. In his description of the teleological ethical system (which emphasizes the goodness of the end result of an action) Kennedy blames evolutionary thought on a Christian giving Darwin a geology book (implying, essentially, that learning science is somehow evil). Evolutionary thought was prevalent before Darwin, and his conclusions were based on evidence collected during his voyages, not from a geology book. Kennedy also shows he misunderstands situational ethics with his example that equates a motive of love with a casual affair calculated to improve the emotional well-being of a lonely woman.
I was happy to see that Kennedy seems to hold a low opinion of altruism, a practice which many Christians believe should be an integral part of their lives. He rightfully recognizes altruism, which is seeking the good of others through self-sacrifice, as a basis for communism and socialism. Nevertheless, Christians practice altruism because this was also an element of the teachings of Jesus. Altruism is a basis of many religions, including Christianity. It is an evil system embodying the concept of human sacrifice. The altruistic ethics of giving value through sacrifice contradict the moral ethics of providing value to others through productivity.
Having touched upon different ethical systems, Kennedy then gives the reader three flawed items of cautionary advice, which I will address here:
1. Speculative, rationalistic systems reject revelation and base the weight of their support upon the conceptions of the human mind. Therefore, their limitations should be obvious at once.
My response to this is, "Revelational systems reject reason, and base the weight of their support upon divine enlightenment from some mythical being. Therefore, their limitations should be obvious at once."
What else is there besides the human mind, if we are unconvinced of God's existence? Morality results from objective reasoning that determines whether a given thing is either inherently good for the conscious human organism or inherently bad for the conscious human organism. A truly complete rational system automatically takes into account the universal interconnecting relationships between all humans in their social organism to arrive at mutually beneficial ethical decisions.
2. Rationalist systems are all man-centered. God is banished from his universe and has no right to tell his creations what to do.
That sounds like a Good Thing to me. Besides, rationalist systems don't "banish" God anywhere. How can you banish something which is either nonexistent or irrelevant?
3. All human ethical systems are willful rebellion against the Almighty God.
This is redundant. Again, one cannot rebel against something whose existence is questionable or irrelevant.
Kennedy also divides, wrongly, the whole matter of ethics into two groups: speculative and revelational. He completely ignores objective ethics. The philosophy of Objectivism, conceived by Ayn Rand, is a strict, logical, moral system that gives meaning and fulfillment to the lives of many people, meeting all human needs without requiring a god, and without the internal contradictions and conflicts associated with religious systems. Much literature has been written by and about Ayn Rand and Objectivism. For a rewarding background study of this philosophy, read one of her novels, notably the literary classic Atlas Shrugged.
In this chapter, Kennedy makes the following incredible declaration: In the Scriptures we have a perfectly balanced ethical system that meets all human needs, and in the Hebrew-Christian tradition, good is inevitably connected with God. These are lies. Human needs do not include, for example, sex with guilt, or the threat of damnation. And for God's goodness, refer back to the section on God's moral's and manners in the commentary on chapter 3. We can look at what Christians call morality, based on the edicts from their God, and then ask "Are the actions of God consistent with the morality that he prescribes?" and we find that the answer is no. The usual argument from Christians is: "We cannot understand why God appears to be inconsistent with his morality, because we are finite beings, incapable of God's infinite understanding." This strikes most nonbelievers as a convenient excuse for not having a good retort.
Why assume God has a higher claim to morality? Christians make that leap by assuming he has more knowledge. Let's examine an analogy. We could assume that Newt Gingrich has more political answers than we do, since he has spent his whole life immersed in politics. We could assume the same of Bill Clinton. Yet, the answers they provide do not match up, and are on occasion wholly contradictory. It therefore falls upon each individual to examine what is truly right and wrong, and not take the word of any one being just because he is a self-described expert. The Bible portrays a God who acted as a moral judge, yet found such things as slavery, racism, genocide, rape, and xenophobia occasionally acceptable. Humanity has since decided otherwise, and in a similar fashion will probably even change God's mind regarding homosexuals over the next several decades.
If one considers that we seem to have evolved as social creatures, then many of those behavioral norms that Kennedy attributes to Christianity are actually biological imperatives. Imagine how long a social species would survive if its members were free to kill each other at will. Not long! Animals do compete with each other, in limited ways, and within set rules - those who willfully destroy their rivals find themselves ostracized.
It is likely that the capabilities of the human mind actually result from natural selection developing our ability to distinguish others' intentions, good from bad. Evidence for this can be found in a study (from Scientific American) in which subjects were asked to solve two comparable sets of logic/math problems, one in pure, abstract form and the other within a social context. Guess which ones people found easier? Our brains are designed to solve problems within contexts, especially the social context in which we evolved.
Morality does not have to derive from God. The source of Christian ethics, now as always, is the ethical/moral system of the society in which we live. These values have evolved along with society. They're simply the rules that have enabled our society to survive. Our comprehension of Revealed Truth guides our reactions and modifications to the Christian ethical system, which is rooted in human nature, society, and history. Except for the possible role as creator of human nature, God is quite unnecessary in this scheme as a "foundation" of morality.
You don't need religion for a complete ethical system. Ethical values should not rely on belief in mythical beings. The supposition that you must act ethically to please some invisible, unknowable God is a pretty weak basis for "morality," especially since the supposed God's moral codes are not only provided indirectly through handed-down legends, but are also of questionable value, considering his behavior as described in the Bible.
In the absence of religion, we form a moral belief system by opening our conscience to the needs and desires of others. A Christian acts according to the demands of his or her deity; a nonreligious person acts out of compassion. Remember the empathy principle? Feel as others feel in response to your actions.
Atheists, humanists, or nonreligious people in general, have ethical systems based on relationships with people. That's pretty absolute. No one out there will come and save us; we need human solutions to human problems. No mythical being is out there to "love" everyone; we need to care for ourselves.
Take a morality from God. Why act in a particular way? "God said so." This is morality from authority. Dr. Kennedy believes in moral absolutes, but authority is, of course, relative, not absolute! Stanley Milgram's experiments demonstrated this quite well. Participants would accept the authority of the "experimenter" and promptly 42% would shock an unwilling "subject" (actually an actor) screaming in pain, pleading to be released and eventually not responding. Those who accept morality from the authority of God, over the connections between them and other human beings, may form immediate followings behind any alternate authorities, because they don't understand morality and how it relates to other people. So, if the leader of a country says that certain people are sub-human vermin, they follow the leader. Just like God, he must be right. He's authority.
Let's look at a few moral absolutes that don't require religion. These are things I consider to be black-and-white absolutes. Everyone has unique values, but certain basic actions never change in terms of rightness or wrongness; they do not vary according to opinion, personality, age, or culture. Objectively good or bad actions are definable in absolute terms; other actions cannot be judged as good or bad because they are determined by individual personal preferences or feelings. As with actions, objective morals are also independent of anyone's opinions or proclamations. They are not created nor determined by anyone. It is important to remember that a person's feelings, lifestyle, desires, and needs can vary greatly without altering that person's character. Objective, natural moral absolutes exist according to the following criteria:
Note that "human organism" does not necessarily equate to "self." This is important. These criteria lead to the following basic moral absolutes:
Throughout human history, ethical systems based on religions have been oriented against some or all of these absolute moral principles. Many find that adhering to these principles requires liberating oneself from religious binds by casting religious dogmas out from one's life.
The Bible does not present a highly advanced moral code. In fact, despite positive aspects, it presents a primitive, crude, suspicious, sexist moral code that is becoming, to the dismay of fundamentalists, ignored more and more in modern society, and for good reasons. Perhaps this ethical system suited people in Biblical times; but they were mistaken. Sexism, racism, slavery, genocide, and superstition are always immoral tools with which to run a society. We've had the benefit of history and fine examples of poorly-run societies (the rise of Christianity coincided with the decay of the Roman empire, Christianity reached its peak of power in the Dark Ages, and today we see religion-controlled governments, like Iran, floundering with unhappy and disturbed populations); we should know better than to follow a failed moral code.
In my view, faith constipates the mind. It restrains people from much cerebral activity they might otherwise be capable of. You don't need a God for an ethical system. In the end, the answer is simple: You should be good because it is good to be so.
Much of this essay's content was influenced by random public comments, collected over a period of 3 months, from discussions involving myself and the following people on usenet, in the newsgroups talk.origins and alt.atheism:
Carolyn Jean Fairman (email removed)
Click here for more links to Objectivism information.
Much of the material on moral absolutes was paraphrased from The Neo-Tech Discovery by Frank R. Wallace, I & O Publishing, 1986, pp. 7-11.
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