Morality is as Objective as Chemistry
Some of my Atheist colleagues are surprised to hear that I am a fan of Dennis Prager. Prager is an author, public speaker and host of a nationally-syndicated radio talk show. He is a devout Jew and argues for the moral superiority of the Judaeo-Christian world view.
So how can a prodigious Atheist be a fan of an overweening Religionist?
At this point, I could go into a self-serving spiel of how I refuse to categorize people into one of two camps: 1) those who agree with everything I think and 2) everyone else — which, coincidentally perfectly aligns with 1) good people and 2) evil people.
Not that I am at all hesitant to lapse into such a lecture, rather this is not that kind of story.
It’s just that I deeply appreciate well structured arguments and welcome them whenever I find them. And Prager is capable of forming proper arguments.
As long as the subject is anything other than religion.
His social and political commentary, for example, are superb. He is a constant source of insight and wisdom. This is what I appreciate.
For all his brilliance, however, when he lapses into religion, he is capable of some awfully foolish beliefs.
For example: Only morality based on the God of the Bible can be considered to be objective. All other (secular) moralities are subjective — that is, are just a matter of opinion.
Before I attack this thesis, let me support it — or, at least, give the Pragerian explanation.
In order to be objective, any statement of fact must be subject to testing against an external reference. If an object is supposedly one meter in length, or kilogram in mass, we can submit the object to measuring these characteristics such that anyone anywhere will get the same results. It’s length and mass, therefore, are objective.
This is just a long-winded way of saying that objective statements are open to proof.
A moral statement, such as “murder is bad” has no external reference that allow us to test the accuracy of the claim. Therefore, morality is subjective. Most people may accept that murder is bad but it just means that this opinion is widely shared — but it is still just a matter of opinion.
On the other hand, the Judaeo-Christian morality can say “murder is bad” because God said it was bad. Thus, God being the external reference by which moral statements may be tested, the Judaeo-Christian morality is objective.
If one doesn’t dig too deeply into the philosophical weeds, this argument almost sounds…well...sound. But there are two major hurdles this argument fails to clear.
One is that the very existence of God is a matter of opinion. Some people think God exists, some people don’t. When your very frame of reference is a matter of opinion, how can the morality based on that reference be anything other than purely subjective?
God doesn’t need proof, some Religionists may argue. God just is.
Yeah, well, that’s your opinion.
The second hurdle is the simple fact that God cannot be the frame of reference because, even if God existed, he doesn’t make himself available to the testing process. Is such-and-such an act moral or not? Let’s ask God!
It’s like me saying that an object weighs 10 kilograms and “that is an objective fact.”
“Fine,” Prager might say. “Let’s measure the weight and see.”
“Sure,” I reply. “But there are no scales available. They exist, trust me on that. They’re just hidden someplace we can’t get to.”
“Point!” cry the Religionists. “But we don’t need God to serve directly as a point of reference. We have the Bible.”
Sure. But if the existence of God is a matter of opinion, what does that make the Bible? Furthermore, any standard must be consistent. A kilogram standard must present as exactly one kilogram, whether you test it today, tomorrow or next year. But the Bible is full of ambiguities, inconsistencies and downright contradictions.
Is Abraham’s command from God to sacrifice his son an example of morality? Surely not. We all recognize that killing an innocent person, whether it be an act of revenge, robbery or human sacrifice to the God of Gods, is murder.
Ah, but it was just a test because, to the reader’s relief, God stops the sacrifice at the last minute.
But this establishes the fact that God is capable and perfectly willing to command us to perform immoral acts and we are expected to obey.
What about other orders which were issued and allowed to take place? What about God’s command to Saul:
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Was this a test? Apparently so, because Saul failed it. Oh, Saul ravaged the Amalekites and killed them all, but he saved Agag, the king of the Amalekites and “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs — everything that was good.”
Because of that, God was pissed.
Yet Saul had already committed what we now recognize somewhat as the ultimate evil: war crimes. Yet God was unhappy because Saul had not done enough.
“Ah,” the honest Religionist must say, “but God is the moral standard. Whatever He commands us to do is, ipso facto, moral.”
This argument completely destroys the entire idea of a moral standard. If morality is whatever God desires it to be at any particular time and circumstance, there is nothing to fall back to in order to judge the morality or immorality of any act.
If some one commits a cold-blooded murder and says that God told him to do it, we have no way to prove that that was not exactly what happened. And no one, not even the most fervent Religionist, expects God to testify at the trial.
God: Well, yes, I did tell the defendant to kill the victim.
Judge: That’s good enough for me. [Slams gavel] Court dismissed. Defendant is free to go.
God: Actually, no, I gave no such command. The defendant acted on his own.
Judge: That’s good enough for me. [Slams gavel] Hang ‘im!”
The automatic defense that God would not command someone to do something that was not moral is rubbish. The Bible is full of examples of God commanding people to do horribly immoral acts.
So we would know if any act, even the most heinous murder, was moral or immoral, only if God told us explicitly. And it would have to be a continuous update because the Bible clearly shows that what God absolutely forbids at some times, He absolutely requires at other times.
I don’t know what one could call a God-based morality, but “objective” is not it.
So what would an objective morality look like?
Let’s start by asking if we have any systems of thought that are based on objective reasoning. Of course we do: biology, chemistry, math, physics, geology, archeology, astronomy,…the list is long.
So what makes them objective? Simply the fact that debates are settled by the revelation, exchange and testing of facts. The key word here is “testing.” One cannot test matters of opinion.
By the way, did anyone notice another crucial characteristic of all objective systems? Get up in front of any group of practitioners of any of these disciplines to argue for or against any theorem and the first time you try to use “God” in your argument you will be laughed off the stage. And rightly so.
Fine. But can this be done with morality? Absolutely.
Let’s start out by deriving a working definition of morality. First, is morality a necessity for human society or is it a luxury — something nice to have but not really needed?
I think we can all agree that it is necessary. Why? And why isn’t it necessary in the rest of the animal kingdom? Because we humans don’t live our lives strictly following our instincts. We make decisions.
And we make these decisions almost every single conscious moment of every single day of our lives. These range from trivial decisions, like which socks to wear today or whether to have one or two pieces of toast for breakfast, to more significant, like what career to pursue, which college to attend or which person to marry.
Instincts suck at making decisions. For that, we need analysis. The important decisions like which car or house to buy may require extensive cost/benefit analysis while whether to have wine or beer or iced tea for dinner may result from what tickles our fancy at the moment.
How much analysis is required depends on the importance of the decision — how long will we have to live with the result or how difficult is will be to correct if we make a “wrong” decision.
Morality is a set of rules to help guide us when we make decisions in our dealings with other people. Morality does not determine which is the better car to buy, but it lets us know that we must buy the car rather than steal the car.
As we walk down the sidewalk and encounter someone else walking toward us, we have to decide to bear left or bear right to avoid a collision. Using nothing but logic, we might conclude that grabbing the on-comer and throwing him into the bushes might be the most efficient choice — but morality tells us that option is to be rejected.
When making a decision, morality does not indicate the best of all available options, it indicates which option or set of options are allowed and which are not allowed.
As we go about our days, handling the problems and challenges we face on a daily basis, we know the best way to work with these problems is to join forces with others who also have an interest or a greater ability to solve the problem.
So our greatest tool of survival is not just our brain, our ability to think, but also our ability to cooperate with each other, to form teams to better resolve the challenges we meet.
Our survival as an individual depends on our ability to reason. Our survival as a society depends on our ability to cooperate with each other. Cooperation requires trust.
So morality is that set of rules that enhances trust and cooperation, thus enhances our ability to survive as a society. That is the objective standard by which any act may be judged. If it promotes trust, cooperation and the survival of society, it is moral. If it undermines or violates trust and cooperation, if it detracts from our ability to survive as a society, it is immoral. If it does neither, it is amoral.
Your deciding to have a salad with dinner neither supports nor detracts from trust. So it is morally neutral. Your having too much wine, then driving home — this is an act that makes the roads less safe for the other drivers and pedestrians who happen to be along your route. Driving is a pursuit of utmost cooperation. Every person engaged in it, driver or passenger, and every person walking down a sidewalk separated from passing cars only by a small curb, could not engage in that activity without a minimal amount of trust that drivers will attempt to drive safely. Driving drunk is a violation of that trust so is immoral — whether or not you cause an accident.
So murder is objectively immoral. It is the ultimate violation of trust, the trust that we may go about our lives in the presence of other people without fear. Fearful people are not able to cooperate and they soon degrade to no society at all.
So we do have the ability to objectively test whether an act is moral or not, a secular test by which we can make such a determination. So morality is objective, after all.