I had an encounter a while back with someone who had an allergy to moral clarity. This person preferred to see all things in shades of gray, whereas I do not: I’m definitely a black-and-white kind of guy. That doesn’t mean I subscribe to any predigested codes of morality, just that I’m clear, in any given situation, about what should or should not be done. Needless to say, this person and I didn’t hit it off well.
But it got me thinking about morality in general, religion as it impacts morality, who makes the judgment about what is right and what is wrong, what I see as the fundamental theistic mistake about morality, and the emergent shades-of-gray mistake that can arise in reaction to it. Good fodder for a blog post, I thought!
I stuck a bit of this into a conversation between two characters in Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering, which is my current novel in progress. Here’s what they had to say:
“Morality — that was maybe one of the biggest mistakes the old religions made. And human religions still do.”
“Morality is a mistake?”
“Attributing it to God or the cosmos or whatever is a mistake. Morality is a human concern. Or an Andol concern. Or even a Droon concern, though I can’t say I like where they’ve gone with it. We do what we judge to be good. Or we fail to do it. The universe doesn’t judge. It loves all equally, giving birth to all things, and taking all things back into itself after their time is done.
“So we’re on our own.”
“When it comes to making moral judgments, yes, we are.”
Now here’s the thing. As children, we have moral judgments made for us by our parents, and this sets a certain paradigm of morality coming from an outside source of authority. Many religious doctrines maintain that paradigm, putting God in the place of the parents for adults. The particulars differ from childhood, but the basic pattern remains constant, in that right and wrong are determined by an outside source. And that is what I call the theistic moral error.
This is related to the so-called “problem of evil.” How can God be at once omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, when evil exists in the world? All answers to this problem that try to preserve this understanding of God as perfectly good either end up in self-contradiction (God can d0 anything, but somehow cannot create intelligent beings capable of free will that are not inclined to do evil, or a world rife with natural horrors) or lose any meaningful conception of good and evil (“good” is defined as “God’s will,” no matter how evil it might seem to human perception).
The real answer, unacceptable as many theists find it, is that the Cosmos is not “perfectly good.” Good and evil arise from human judgment, not from cosmic verities. God isn’t concerned with morality. God is beyond good and evil. The cosmos is not there for us to judge. (Which doesn’t say that we can’t work to amend it according to perceived need.)
In fact, the Book of Job has something to say about this. God in that poet’s vision clearly asserts that he is beyond human values, as he is beyond human understanding.
But if morality doesn’t come from God/the Cosmos, where does it come from? Does this mean that there are no clear moral principles at all, and that everything is, as some think when they have liberated themselves from the restrictive and often hypocritical moral codes of their childhood, sometimes imposed by abusive parents, all gray?
No. Or not in my opinion. Because although morality is, as my character asserts, a human concern rather than that of the Cosmos, it is a human concern. We do make moral judgments. It’s part of our nature to decide what actions are good and what are evil, to reward and punish accordingly, to laud or condemn. To refuse to do so in reaction to realizing that the Cosmos isn’t concerned with such things, is at least as big an error as the one that claimed Cosmic backing for one’s moral judgments in the first place.
The fact that God can’t be bothered sending people to Hell for sin doesn’t leave people free to sin. The fact that there are no “absolutes” of morality doesn’t mean that a bad person may do as he pleases in his selfishness and not be condemned. It just means he won’t be condemned by the Cosmos. He can still be condemned by me. And by other human beings, and by society itself, if I can persuade others to join me in condemning that behavior. This is the power of the will, requiring no divine backing, asserting itself in its own forcefulness. Core values are fundamentally non-rational, but they are widely shared, and reasoning from them to moral conclusions can allow for persuasion — and that is as effective as the nonexistent judgment of God; indeed, it is the only authority morality has ever had, and the only authority it has ever needed.
That morality is “relative” doesn’t mean that pursuit of self-interest without any moral concerns at all, is pursuit of “private morality.” It is an assertion, rather, that there is no morality, which is not the case. There is: we create it. We need no outside authority for this. We are adults. We make the judgments ourselves. We always did; the idea that God gave them to us was always a delusion. The loss of that delusion doesn’t change anything of significance. We still make the judgments. We simply stop deluding ourselves about where they come from. This does leave us free to change our moral values if circumstances seem to dictate this, as for example prevailing sexual morality has changed over the last few centuries from something oriented towards protecting men’s ownership of their female property to something oriented towards protecting right of consent/refusal and personal integrity and respect. But it does not mean “anything goes.”
Morality is an important part of maintaining civilization and getting along with each other. Making moral judgments is a part of what it means to be human. Ceasing to do so isn’t liberating. It’s dehumanizing.
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