Shadow of the Dead God': Morality Reexplored - Chapter One

Published on 3 August 2023 at 12:47

This entry marks the beginning of a series in which I'll be rewriting and refining my book, "Shadow of the Dead God." This endeavor is motivated by a desire to enhance and improve upon my published work, as I believe I can do better. To kickstart this project, we'll delve into my favorite philosophical subject: ethics. I sincerely hope you enjoy accompanying me on this journey and find value in the exploration and evolution of these ideas. This first entry will primarily focus on refining and rewriting chapter six, titled "Morality I," from "Shadow of the Dead God.


Morality is an unavoidable subject in any philosophical discussion, particularly when it pertains to the existence of God. Theologians often argue that the existence of God allows us to discern right from wrong since moral judgments emanate from divine will. According to this perspective, without a belief in God, atheists lack a foundation on which to ground their morality. Some even suggest that without a divine presence, atheists cannot make definitive judgments about right and wrong but can only express their personal opinions on moral matters. When contemplating morality, many people immediately think of it in terms of what is right and what is wrong. While there is widespread agreement on certain moral judgments, such as the wrongness of killing, the underlying rationale for why it is wrong often remains disputed. Many individuals mistakenly believe that something is objectively wrong simply because a majority seems to agree on it. However, being objectively wrong means that a moral judgment is valid independent of human opinion. An often underappreciated point is if killing were objectively wrong, it would not, on its own, explain why it is so. We must first understand why something is wrong before we can discuss its nature. Parsing out these underlying principles requires a nuanced approach to ethics and an understanding of the different philosophical perspectives on morality. Without this comprehension, debates about the nature of right and wrong risk becoming mired in confusion and subjectivity.


I believe it's essential to lay out our moral foundations and define key terms as we proceed. This ensures that what I'm attempting to convey remains as clear as possible, especially when we delve into the intricate details of the discussion in this and subsequent entries. Much like the foundation of a building, which must be solid for the structure to stand firm, the moral foundation needs to be robust and well-defined. Before anyone can grasp what I mean when I label something as right or wrong, they must first understand the principles these judgments are based on from my perspective. For me, the foundation of my entire moral system is human well-being, encompassing both mental and physical well-being. Though this foundation may seem simplistic, it satisfies critical ethical criteria such as the veil of ignorance test, allowing for nuanced perceptions about morality. This approach provides a stable and flexible platform on which to build complex moral understanding.


Sam Harris once infamously and assertively proclaimed that if one is not speaking of well-being, they are not speaking about morality. I find this statement to be overly simplistic and, perhaps, more dogmatic than I would ever be comfortable asserting. While I agree that we are likely discussing two very different ideas of morality if well-being is not part of the conversation, I believe that Dr. Harris's phrasing does a disservice to intellectual discourse. It seems to limit the possibility for understanding and engagement between different moral perspectives. That said, let's delve into what I mean by "right" and "wrong" within the context of my understanding of morality.


A moral right, in my understanding, is an action that promotes or protects human well-being. Conversely, a moral wrong is an action that is detrimental to, degrades, or harms human well-being. This is a foundational definition, and as we explore more complex ethical questions, it may become more nuanced. The interpretation of what is right or wrong can vary based on context and specific situations, reflecting the multifaceted nature of moral considerations. However, it's important to note that any moral consideration I make is fundamentally predicated on the foundation of human well-being.


Now that we have laid this foundation, we can proceed to construct the rest of the building, so to speak. This will allow us to navigate more complex ethical issues that may seem to require greater nuance than what the foundational principles provide. This complexity is not a detriment to the idea; all moral systems contain layers built upon a foundational understanding. The most critical layer concerns how we treat each other in everyday life and casual interactions. Although this is a multifaceted concept, it starts with a "rule" that dates back to the earliest hunter-gatherers and was later formalized in the Code of Hammurabi. This is the Golden Rule: to treat others as you would want to be treated. It's a timeless principle that transcends cultures and eras, providing a simple yet profound guideline for human interaction.


This rule is so profound that it is found in almost every mythology and religion in human history. It's a principle that transcends specific beliefs and practices, even being emphasized by Jesus Christ in Christianity. Its ubiquity across cultures and traditions underscores its fundamental importance as a guiding moral principle. The irony of the Golden Rule is that, while it may be seen as immensely selfish since it encourages behavior that one would desire for oneself, it also benefits everyone around the individual. This dual nature adds to its complexity and universal appeal as a fundamental ethical guideline.


 Nothing we have discussed thus far would necessitate a god's intervention or influence, even if one were to exist. The principles outlined are grounded in human experience and reasoning, independent of any divine mandate or guidance. All that is required so far in this moral framework is a bit of species-centric thinking, focusing on human well-being, and a degree of self-interest. These considerations don't invoke or rely on any supernatural entities or concepts but rather center on practical and observable human concerns. It really is this simple to approach, and some theistic philosophers seem to greatly and needlessly overcomplicate matters. The basis for morality, as outlined here, can be understood without invoking complex theological arguments, focusing instead on fundamental human values and interests.


Even though this system could be seen as inherently selfish, it actively shields itself from many human vices precisely because of that selfishness. Moreover, it serves as a guard against moral relativism, since human well-being does not change depending on who is in power or the social class of an individual or group. A quick definition for clarity: moral relativism is the notion that society or the majority determines what is moral. It is often used to challenge certain ethical theories due to moral relativism's potentially troubling implications. Under moral relativism, if a particular group with objectionable views became the dominant socio-political force, they could deem their actions as morally good, and they would be correct by default. An extreme example would be if the Nazis had won World War II; they could simply declare the Holocaust as a moral good, and this would have to be accepted within a relativistic framework. By grounding morality in the tangible concept of human well-being, we avoid these pitfalls, creating a more stable and universal ethical system that transcends individual perspectives or power dynamics.


Before we can complete the construction of this ethical system, we need to take a moment to consider what objective morality is and whether it truly exists. Another quick definition is in order for "objective" (or "objectivity"). This term refers to the idea that something is true, independent of human opinion. An example of an objective fact would be that the Earth is roundish in shape. This truth holds regardless of who might think otherwise, or even if there were no humans around to contemplate it.


Objective morality should not be confused with absolute morality. While objective morality refers to moral truths that exist independently of human opinion, absolute morality implies that a moral principle is always true, without exception. Consider the example of theft. Most of us allow some grey area for this moral issue, recognizing that there may be contexts or situations where theft might not be considered immoral. For instance, stealing food to feed a starving child might be viewed differently from stealing for personal gain. Absolute morality, on the other hand, would maintain that theft is wrong all the time, in any context and under all circumstances. It offers no room for nuance or consideration of the specific details of a situation. The distinction between objective and absolute morality is important as it highlights the complexity and subtlety involved in ethical reasoning. Few people in everyday situations advocate for absolute morality, recognizing that moral questions often require nuance and a consideration of specific contexts and situations. This perspective allows for a more flexible and compassionate approach to ethics, rather than adhering to rigid, unchanging principles.

The next layer of our ethical framework involves rights theory. This is a philosophical approach that posits that by simply existing as a human being, we possess inherent rights as a matter of course. These rights can (and should) include fundamental principles like those enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, such as liberty, life, the pursuit of happiness, and access to a fair judicial system. I would extend this further to include bodily autonomy, freedom of religion, among others. I used to incorporate virtue ethics into this framework as well, but I have found it to be too complex and messy for my tastes. Rights theory, on the other hand, is indispensable to me. It provides a clear and principled basis for understanding human dignity and justice, anchoring our moral judgments in widely recognized and deeply valued aspects of human existence.


The roof of this ethical building is capped off with general societal norms. This is the weakest layer, and one that should be considered last, but it is nonetheless an important aspect of our moral framework. It recognizes that societies shift and learn as they evolve over time, and that cultural attitudes and values can change. A prominent example to consider is the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Among the vast majority of first-world countries, being a member of the LGBTQ community has become not only a non-issue but is widely accepted and celebrated. This change in societal attitudes reflects a broader moral progression and illustrates how our understanding of right and wrong can develop and deepen. By including societal norms as the capstone of our moral framework, we ensure that our ethics remain responsive to the ongoing growth and transformation of human culture.


That is all that is needed to build a robust moral system that works for most people, and is fair for everyone. This leads us to the 2nd half of this entry, which is going to dive deeper into the philosophical weeds of ethics. I felt it was important to first lay out the moral framework in which I work, and how we get to what I understand to be morality. This was for clarity, so that when we further speak about morality in this rest of this entry, and ensuing entries it is clear what is meant when I speak of what is right, wrong, and moral.


We previously defined terms related to objective morality, and now it's time to explore that topic and its surrounding philosophies. As with most of my work, this will be done in natural language. I believe it's pretentious and detrimental to the discourse to write about philosophy in overly technical and formal terms. My aim is to be accessible to everyone, and I feel no compulsion to present my work in a format that resembles a mathematics paper more than the engaging philosophy that brought you here. If anyone wishes to extrapolate from that to insult me, saying it shows a lack of understanding, they're welcome to do so. I'm well past the point of caring about such criticisms and will let my work speak for itself. By communicating in a way that resonates with a wide audience, I hope to foster a deeper and more meaningful connection with the core ideas and values that guide our moral lives.


The broader context that will encompass a significant portion of the following topics is the debate over the objectivity of morality. I freely admit that I'm in a minority among philosophers, as I do not believe that morality is objective. In fact, as will be explored in the next entry about moral change and evolution, I don't think the idea of objective morality is even plausible. This perspective challenges conventional philosophical wisdom, and I look forward to unpacking and explaining my stance in the upcoming discussions.


One of the primary reasons I don't view morality as objective relates to how we understand moral ontology; that is, the nature of morality itself. Recall that I previously laid out my moral framework, positioning my understanding of morality within that context. The discussion will get more intriguing when we reach Kant's and Hume’s ideas, but for now, we have a few considerations. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that morality is objective. Under this assumption, when we say killing is wrong, it's wrong unequivocally. Although objectivity may slightly allow for contextual and situational nuance, the general principle remains that killing is wrong.


Let's take a brief trip in time to ancient Greece, to the origins of philosophy, and consider the Socratic method. This approach involves continuous questioning to draw out conclusions and insights from underlying positions and presuppositions. With that in mind, let's ponder a question: We know that killing is wrong according to morality's assumed objectivity, but why is killing wrong? This inquiry opens the door to a profound exploration of the nature of morality and challenges us to critically evaluate our ethical convictions.


Broadly speaking, there appear to be only two ways to answer the question of why killing is wrong. The first is to enter into a circular argument and say that it's wrong simply because it's wrong. This response is fallacious and fails to provide a true answer to the question. Any other answer will inevitably appeal to an underlying reason, taking us outside the realm of objectivity. This is known as a relational goal. To speak meaningfully about morality, it must be in relation to a specific goal. If I appeal to well-being, the underlying implication is that the protection of well-being (which killing demonstrably harms) is the goal. If a theist appeals to God's nature, the implication is that the goal is to be in concordance with the nature of God. These interpretations move us beyond simple declarations of right or wrong, requiring us to consider deeper principles and values that shape our moral framework.


There are two explicit entailments in the illustrations provided. The first and most significant entailment is that if the goal of morality varies depending on the framework, then morality cannot be objective. The second entailment follows that if morality is not objective, it must be something other than objective. While I reject relativism, this leads me to a two-fold perspective: that morality is both subjective, depending on the individual's perspective, and situational. These are considered entailments rather than mere implications because of the underlying logic. Morality is either objective or it's not. If people can have fundamentally different frameworks for how they perceive morality and make moral judgments, then morality cannot be objective, even if those individuals agree on what the ultimate moral conclusion is.


Now, let's revisit the question: Why is killing wrong? While most would agree that killing is wrong, the reasons behind this belief may differ. A theist might argue that killing is wrong because God decrees it so, and God's nature is inherently good. We will set aside this perspective for now and accept it as a valid response. My answer, on the other hand, is that killing is wrong because it harms well-being. Although we have reached the same conclusion that killing is wrong, our beliefs are predicated on entirely different moral frameworks. This illustrates that even though the same conclusions may be reached, the path to those conclusions, or the framework of how we view morality, is subjective.


There is a bit more to explore here, particularly the flexibility within both frameworks. For instance, the theistic framework may allow for actions that do not seem good in order to achieve a "greater good." In this view, even if we do not understand the underlying "greater good," killing might be considered a moral good if ordered by God. While I certainly have reservations about this perspective, I will set them aside for now. In contrast, the flexibility within my framework might lie in the context of weighing the greater harm to well-being. If the death of one person could save fifty, then the well-being of the fifty would outweigh that of the one. This would lead to the view that the death of the one person could be considered the correct moral action. Both examples illustrate the inherent flexibility and complexity within different moral frameworks, even when reaching similar conclusions.


Within my framework, there's a nuanced understanding that must be considered. Death is always a last resort. We would be obligated to prioritize well-being by attempting other methods first, such as restraining or neutralizing the person in question. Imagine, for instance, that you were one of the two hundred passengers on the hijacked planes that flew into the World Trade Center. The first course of action would be to try to restrain the hijacker. If that failed, then an attempt to neutralize him with non-lethal means would follow. This could involve measures like using mace, injuring a leg, removing the weapon if applicable, or resorting to an old-fashioned knockout. If those methods proved unsuccessful, it would be considered the correct moral action to end the hijacker's life to save the other two hundred people. The guiding principle in this framework is the protection of well-being, and it obliges us to explore all other alternatives before resorting to lethal means ...and that lethal means should only be used if every other action was ineffective. This hierarchy of responses ensures that the most extreme measures are taken only when all other options have been exhausted, reflecting a profound commitment to preserving life and well-being whenever possible.


All of this finally leads us to David Hume, Immanuel Kant and their ideas concerning morality. I will be honest with you; while I certainly agree with most of Kant’s categorical imperatives, I do not find them particularly relevant to the broader topic of morality. They seem to be his foundational principles that he believes we all should live by. While they can be debated, and I find no inherent issue with them, I just don't see the point in discussing them in this context.


What I do find important is the "is-ought" distinction, often attributed to David Hume, and how this distinction could impact one's understanding of morality. To simplify, "oughts" are those things that ought to be done, and this is intertwined with those things that ought not be done. We ought to protect children, and we ought not to kill someone. One of Hume's most profound contributions is the notion that we cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." For example, science can tell us what life is, but it cannot tell us that we ought to protect life. This philosophical issue raises significant questions about how we justify our moral beliefs and decisions.


I believe the notion that we cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" is overstated. In my view, we certainly can get an "ought" from an "is." To me, morality is defined by the framework I laid out, with well-being as its foundation. To simplify, morality IS well-being. If well-being is the "is," then we can derive all sorts of "oughts" from that "is." For example, I ought to promote your well-being because well-being equates to morality (in a simplified sense). I ought not to harm you because well-being is synonymous with morality, and harming you would be detrimental to your well-being. I make these points because I view these "oughts" in relation to goals, and my perspective on morality as a whole aligns with this approach. In my opinion, we can only speak meaningfully about "ought" if these statements are related to a specific goal, such as the promotion of well-being.


An important point of consideration is that even if there is a god, and he is the arbiter of what is moral, the goal would still be to align ourselves with the will or nature of God, to be in accordance with what he deems moral. In this perspective, morality would still be entirely subjective, but the subject would be God himself. This viewpoint introduces an intriguing layer of complexity to the discussion of morality's objective or subjective nature, suggesting that even in a system where a deity dictates moral law, the subjectivity of that law will still reside in the nature and judgments of the deity.


 This discussion brings us back to the concept of objectivity, and there are some important notes to consider. While I believe I have sufficiently demonstrated that morality itself is not objective, there is still a place for objectivity within the framework of morality. In the next entry, this point will be reinforced through an in-depth exploration of moral differences and moral evolution. Even though the foundations and frameworks of morality are subjective, once we establish those principles, we can identify the specific goals of morality. With those goals in place, we can make objective assessments on how to reach them and form objective moral judgments in relation to those goals. This nuanced approach recognizes the subjectivity at the core of moral systems but also embraces the possibility of objective analysis and judgment within those systems. It sets the stage for a richer understanding of how morality functions and evolves.


The section on morality in "Shadow of the Dead God" spanned five chapters, and, in retrospect, I feel that I did not handle the conciseness of those chapters as well as I could have. I left a lot of potential insights unexplored. In this rewrite, I'm not yet certain if there will be exactly five entries, but I do intend for each one to be longer and more in-depth than their corresponding chapters in the original work. Some of these entries may even be combined in an effort to maintain conciseness and clarity. My goal is to create a more coherent and comprehensive exploration of the subject matter, ensuring that the complexities of the argument are presented in an accessible and engaging way.


As such, I have subjectively set both a word count limit and a minimum for each entry. I fully understand that few, if anyone, wants to spend hours reading a blog entry. However, the aim of these entries on morality is to start by laying out my views on the subject and delineating my moral framework, as this will be immensely important in the following entries.


My overall argument continues to pursue two primary objectives: to demonstrate that moral change and differences between cultures prove that morality is not objective, and to argue that the Abrahamic God is not the embodiment of goodness or cannot be inherently good. I will first illustrate moral change and difference to build the foundation for my argument. Then, I'll show that the portrayal of the Abrahamic God in classical theism is flawed. Following this, I will present and refute the moral argument for the existence of God using insights gathered from all my writings on morality.


Lastly, I will conclude by packaging everything together in a cohesive and accessible manner. I hope you have enjoyed this read and that you will find the upcoming entries engaging and thought-provoking as well. Thank you for embarking on this intellectual journey with me.

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