If you can get away with it, just do it

On some moral issues, for example the torturing of babies, there is almost complete agreement on what is right and what is wrong, while with other issues, such as abortion, there is strong and often completely irreconcilable disagreement. From where do we derive our notions of right and wrong and how do/should we decide who is correct?

Societies founded on a Christian tradition have largely based their beliefs about right and wrong on what they perceive to be God’s decrees. The thinking has been that God was our creator and, by definition, is all wise and good. God defined and made at least generally clear what is right and what is wrong. Thus there was believed to be an objective basis to an absolute morality.

With the rapid growth of secularism, it is becoming increasingly evident that appeals to God for a moral foundation and direction makes no sense. But if not God, then what?

One possible answer is to assert that moral values just happen to be part of “the furniture” thrown up by an evolving, godless universe. These values are floating around out there and somehow people are able to simply intuit them. What should be made of such an idea?

It would seem to be a rather extraordinary occurrence if lifeless, unconscious matter should have somehow generated in particular units of matter, known as human beings, the sense that certain behaviours are “right” and others “wrong”. (And it does seem that moral notions are largely confined to homo sapiens.) Even if such an unlikely scenario has occurred though, what would it mean?

Let us accept for now that the nature of matter is such that it has happened that humans have a built-in sensor that tells them, for example, that when they experience or hear about lying or rape, they are led to hold a belief that lying and rape are “wrong”. So far so good – perhaps.

But when lying and rape do occur, as they surely do, have the liars and rapists committed some sort of cosmic offence against “the universe”? After all, the physical universe brought them, unintentionally and purposelessly to be sure, but nevertheless brought them into being and generated these moral feelings, so do they therefore wrong the universe? Maybe in some curious way you could say that they do, but you have to be left asking, so what?

It is not as if an unconscious universe can care that the “moral code” that has unintentionally happened into existence is being broken. Equally it cannot penalise anyone in any way for what may be regarded as even the grossest of breaches of its “morality”.

It is also very inconvenient that it has happened that human beings have not evolved to believe that the same things are “right” and “wrong”, as noted above. (Why haven’t they?) Who, then, can say that one person’s evolved belief that abortion is “wrong” is incorrect, while the one who has evolved to believe that it is “right” is right? On what principled basis can such a judgment be made?

No, at best a naturally evolved morality, should it actually exist, is nothing but a toothless, and ultimately useless and meaningless, curiosity.

The other main alternative for finding a basis for morality is to look to human beings themselves. People don’t need a god or nature to tell them what is right and wrong: they can surely rationally create a moral belief system by themselves, for themselves. The pros and cons of different moral positions on various issues can be debated and then a decision made as to which is most suitable.

Easy. Right?

It needs to be recognised that a crucially important difference creeps into the meaning of “right” and “wrong” when such an approach is adopted. When “right” and “wrong” are defined by God, there can be an objectivity and absoluteness to the moral code. In contrast, morality as defined by human beings is subjective and relative.

Human-generated morality is, by definition, not able to or even trying to establish what is the truly “right” thing to do in any given situation because the basic premise is that no objective, absolute “right” position even exists that could be found. Rather, when a human-generated moral code declares a certain act to be morally “right” it is simply saying that such an act is preferred by more people than are the possible alternative (“wrong”) acts in a given situation.

According to this approach then a person who does “wrong” doesn’t actually commit a moral offence. The moral term “wrong” is applied and the implication is usually given and taken that something immoral has occurred but that is not actually the case. We are really just saying that most of us did not like what this person did but in fact he or she did not break any objective, absolute moral rules, as these don’t exist. They just broke the rules we chose to make up (and these rules could have been otherwise).

Making up a “morality” effectively results in the doing away with morality and substituting in its stead a system of subjective preferences, albeit while still employing the terminology of morality.

What happens when people begin to realise that this is the case, as surely some do now, and with society becoming increasingly consciously secularised, increasing numbers will come to realise? If a person is going to be quite rational about it they will publicly endorse and support a human-generated, secular “morality” as this will be good for their own reputation, while at the same time it will help keep society stable by keeping the people in line. But when it suits them, and they are confident they can get away with it, they would be sensible to disregard this “morality” and simply do whatever gives them the most pleasure.

They would be sensible because if there is no God-given morality then presumably there is no God; if no God, then no ultimate purpose to life; if no God, then no final accountability. If there is no God, no objective morality, no ultimate purpose, no final accountability, and presumably just the one chance to live life, then the sensible person will throw off all that would hinder them from maximising their own interests, whatever they may be, while prudently maintaining a respectable public façade.

This of course may appear to be a very selfish, indeed hypocritical, approach to life. The intelligent, rational secularist will recognise however that these “moral” terms are completely lacking in objective content. Any baggage of guilt or shame they may bring with them is just a hangover from less enlightened times and can be safely ignored. (Which is not to say that this is always easy to do given how ingrained such notions are.)

So if he/she has a strong incentive to cheat, lie, steal, commit adultery and, dare it be said commit murder, rape, and torture of children, and the prospects are acceptably good enough that these acts will go unattributed to them, then, if “moral” qualms are the only things preventing them from doing so, that would be foolishness not to do so. (And “foolishness here is not meant in a morally derogatory sense but rather in the sense of stupid, such as if a very thirsty person refused a glass of clean water.)

The unenlightened will squeal that the aforementioned acts harm other people and the accepted understanding is that we should not harm others. That moral rule however is just as much a human construct as are all the other moral rules and so is ultimately just as weightless.

The main concern that the intelligent, rational secularist should have does not have to do with “morality” itself but rather with the possibility that significant numbers of people will awaken to the actual state of affairs regarding human-generated “morality”. It would be disastrous for them, and in the end for everyone, if most people were to try and work the double standard as society would sooner or later devolve into chaos.

A moral code that is accepted and enforced is desirable then. If God is absent the only viable source for such a code is humanity itself. But since we make the moral rules up ourselves they lack any ultimate authority. Why should one person do what another person, or even a whole group of people, tells them they ought or ought not do? Of course they might be punished for going against the majority but if they can get away with it, why shouldn’t they?

Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, was surely correct when he contended that if there is no God, everything is permissible. In an increasingly secular society as people progressively abandon the notion of a morality based on God’s decrees, things could get very rough indeed. Perhaps with the apparent rapid growth in such practices as child pornography we are getting a glimpse of the future.