A Question of Right and Wrong

Theists often attack atheism on the grounds that without God there is no ultimate justice; much of the arguing between theists and atheists boils down to discussions surrounding this ‘moral problem’.

In a previous post I extensively (albeit, rather discursively) discussed what my answer would be to this moral problem. In more than a few words, but less than a thousand, I’d like to describe it again here.

In order to formulate a moral philosophy we have to ask what we want from morality. Most people want safety; it’s why we build houses, why we build cars, communities, weapons. Survival is also a prime evolutionary force, so we have that on our side too. We want safety. But why? Why is the world unsafe. Simply listing ways in which the world sucks won’t help us in our quest for moral understanding, but perhaps asking how things happen will. Chance plays a huge role in our lives. Chance dictates who we’re born to, where we’re born, what gender, what time, if we’re good-looking, have social skills etc… I believe in a type of free-will (for you philosophers, probably a form of compatibilism) so I do think that people have a say in their ‘fate’. I also think that this chance that ‘determines’ (to a large degree) our lives, can also instantly change them for the better – and for the worse.

Why do we do good things now? That’s another question we have to ask. Most people would respond with ‘because it’s the right thing to do’ – laterally referencing something which looks like an ethical code, but is more of a political one. But perhaps evolution has something to say about this too (like the drive for self-preservation). There are many accounts of why morality would have evolved, and since I believe in evolution, I do believe that they evolved. In this particular respect, I do agree with Sam Harris that science can tell us something about morality (I just don’t think it can be the base from which we derive moral knowledge, formulate and apply moral systems). Finding out why and how we do good things won’t answer or moral problems for us, but it will give us a firm understanding of who we are and what we do – something essential to understanding any cohesive moral philosophy. Many people, though, do good things because they like when people do good things to them. This ‘golden rule’ helps us in many of our daily interactions, and does help keep us above board in terms of our moral karma, but when it comes to hard problems like the terrorist torture problem, and it’s variants, it fails us.

When it comes to many of these big problems, most of these moral philosophies fail us. I think my moral philosophy adequately answers these problems, but answering the extreme problems doesn’t have to come yet – moral philosophies (in a secular context) are not infallible. We agree to falsifiability and modulate our theories depending on new information.

We are guaranteed two things in life: 1) person-hood, and 2) suffering. If we are alive, (and by we, I mean people) we are persons. And if we are alive, we are, and are going to, suffer. That suffering will culminate in the ultimate termination of our existence – the ultimate suffering. Suffering doesn’t just mean physical well-being, it also means mental and existential and intellectual and aesthetic. We can suffer in many ways, because people are incredibly dynamic and complex. But if we want to make our lives safer, have a way to combat against chance, and imbue our lives with meaningful justice and equality, we have to coalesce those two facts of life (person-hood and suffering).

There is a need for a more complex moral philosophy, and a need for a public understanding of that moral philosophy. In order for that to even begin happening, the moral philosophy has to be normative – that is, it has to be reasonable to reasonable people.

We have to take the individual person as the unit of measurement in our moral understanding. Not an individual person (that includes ourselves) as the golden rule would suggest, but as the idea of an individual person; of person-hood. From that understanding we can answer many if not all of the moral dilemmas we are likely to face in our every day lives, as well as many if not all of the theoretical ones which shape the course of our moral inquiry.


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