“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good... Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” - Pope Francis.
Welcome to the second installment of the rewrite of "Shadow of the Dead God", which will delve into Chapters Two and Three, focusing on the topic of morality. This segment will explore the evolution and progression of morality over time. The changing nature of our moral outlook over centuries appears to be almost an axiomatic truth, rarely confronted or challenged, and thus, not necessitating significant justification. Despite this, I intend to delve into this justification, illustrating how it substantiates the claim that morality is not objective but rather subject to change and interpretation. Subsequently, I will dissect the transformation of morality and illustrate how it similarly underscores the absence of objectivity. This promises to be the longest chapter, but I am confident that its insights will make it a worthwhile read.
Every individual harbors their unique moral system, anchored in a foundation upon which these systems are built. This holds true irrespective of whether one is able to explicitly articulate their views or not. It's not uncommon to hear the claim that atheists borrow their morality from theism. While I don't entirely dispute this idea, I believe it lacks the necessary nuance. Over the past two thousand years, two religions - Christianity and Islam - have significantly influenced the human experience. The vast majority of the global population during this period was, and many still are, adherents of one of these two faiths. This pervasive influence inevitably shaped the moral landscape across different cultures and societies.
Given this historical context, it's unsurprising that a significant portion of our moral understanding appears to be shaped by these two religions. However, it's crucial to acknowledge that both Christianity and Islam are rooted in, and fundamentally reliant on, the third of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism. To put it simply, Islam could not exist without Christianity, and Christianity could not exist without Judaism. If we were to imagine the Abrahamic religions as a series of books, Judaism would be the inaugural book, the foundation. Christianity would serve as the sequel, introducing a new protagonist, antagonist, and fresh plot twists, all the while revising some previously established narratives. Islam would then represent a side story or spinoff, taking inspiration from both preceding religions while further modifying and adapting their narratives.
Both Christianity and Islam further developed the moral teachings of Judaism, with Islam to some extent also progressing some moral concepts initially put forth by Christianity. Here, evolution does not necessarily imply an enhancement but merely a transformation based on roughly similar ideas. This evolution is expected, considering the societal adaptations and changes over time, particularly given the lengthy time scales we are considering. These religions not only evolved the moral teachings of their predecessors, but they also underwent internal evolution over time. This self-evolution within each religion will be our focus for the next segment, given its significant importance.
Christianity is the odd-man out here, as it also encompasses all of Judaism, making them the easiest of the religion to demonstrate the internal moral evolution of.
A prime example of these differences and evolutions within religious morality is the concept of the Sabbath. In Judaism, observing the Sabbath was so crucial that it was enshrined in the Ten Commandments. In ancient Jewish society, violating the Sabbath could even lead to one's execution. However, with the advent of Jesus, this perspective underwent a significant shift. Jesus himself is recorded in the New Testament as having broken the Sabbath, and he taught his followers that if the demands of life required it, the Sabbath could be broken without incurring divine wrath. This change underscores how religious teachings can adapt and evolve based on new teachings and societal needs.
The illustration of the Sabbath serves as a compelling example to underscore a crucial point about religions evolving their own moral frameworks. The Jewish people are beholden to over six hundred mitzvot, or commandments, that they are expected to adhere to. In contrast, the Ten Commandments, while foundational to Jewish religious practice, are often regarded as universal in their intent, aimed at guiding not just the Jewish community, but all of humanity. Such was the gravity of the Ten Commandments within the Jewish context that breaching them often resulted in the most severe of penalties, including death. This emphasizes the dynamic nature of religious moral codes and their capability to adapt and shift over time and with new teachings.
Another illuminating example of evolving religious moral perspectives can be found in Jesus' teachings about the commandments. At times, Jesus deepened the understanding of these commandments, making them even more stringent. For instance, while the commandment explicitly forbids adultery, Jesus expanded its interpretation by asserting that even harboring lustful thoughts towards someone other than one's spouse constituted a violation. Conversely, when posed with the question of which commandment was the most paramount, Jesus distilled the essence of the commandments into two core principles. The foremost was to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind," echoing the Jewish Shema. The second, akin to an addition, was to "love your neighbor as yourself." These teachings underscore the fluidity and adaptability of religious moral codes, even within the confines of foundational texts, as they are reinterpreted and emphasized differently based on changing circumstances and teachings.
Indeed, the Abrahamic religions have seen considerable internal moral growth and evolution over time, as demonstrated by the examples provided. However, another potent factor driving changes in religious morality is societal evolution and external pressures. For instance, many contemporary laws have rendered certain religious practices and beliefs incompatible with modern societal values and norms. The stark reality is that numerous archaic moral prescriptions, such as the severe punishment of adulterers by stoning, are now illegal and widely considered inhumane in most modern societies. This shift is not solely due to internal religious reformation but also significantly influenced by the broader societal consensus on human rights, dignity, and ethics. This interaction between religious beliefs and societal values showcases a symbiotic relationship. As societies evolve and progress, religions, too, often find themselves adapting to these changes, either to maintain relevance or to align better with prevailing ethical standards.
In a modern context, the complete annihilation of a country's population during war would be universally condemned. This type of directive, once attributed to the Abrahamic God in various ancient scriptures, would now be considered a severe violation of human rights. In today's world, any leader who sanctioned such actions would likely face charges of war crimes in international courts, such as the United Nations. Similarly, if a country were to kill all male combatants and then capture women and children as spoils of war, it would be met with widespread condemnation and potential legal consequences. These historical religious narratives starkly contrast with contemporary moral and ethical standards.
These examples compellingly illustrate the evolution of morality over time. While one could compile countless instances of such changes, spanning volumes, there's hardly any contention on this point among scholars. Virtually no one in the philosophical community, or even among those with a casual interest in the subject, disputes the idea that morality shifts over the ages. The primary purpose of these illustrations is to underscore this widely accepted notion in an unambiguous manner.
Having explored the evolution of morality, we now turn our attention to the often-irreconcilable moral differences that exist across cultures, religions, and individuals. These differences underscore the complexities surrounding moral intuitions, which are significantly shaped by factors such as religious upbringing, societal influences, and one's personal ethical framework. While this exploration isn't exhaustive, it seeks to shed light on some of the most pronounced discrepancies and critical issues in understanding moral diversity.
If you were to consider the most severe transgressions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which would come to mind? In Judaism, it's blasphemy. Christianity views blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and denying Jesus as paramount sins. Meanwhile, in Islam, showing anything less than adoration for Muhammad is gravely frowned upon. These offenses underscore the nuances among the Abrahamic religions. Yet, a more profound distinction lies beneath the surface: the contrast between these theological sins and what an average individual might instinctively consider the most egregious moral wrongdoing.
For example, without hesitation, I'd assert that rape is the most heinous crime one can commit. I believe many would resonate with this sentiment, while others might argue that murder, particularly of a child, and other unspeakable acts are equally egregious. This perspective stems from the fact that, for many, the essence of morality is primarily rooted in the well-being of individuals. Empathy significantly influences this viewpoint, as people recognize the tangible harm such actions inflict on actual individuals. Conversely, transgressions against an omnipotent deity often rank lower in our moral considerations, if they're considered at all.
While exploring this topic, let's delve into why I regard rape as the most heinous act, even when compared to the murder of a young child. I understand the gravity of this discussion and extend my sincere apologies for any distress it might cause. However, these examples serve to illuminate the core of the issue more poignantly than many other scenarios. While murder definitively ends a life, extinguishing its well-being in a singular act, its ramifications predominantly affect the loved ones left behind. In contrast, rape inflicts wounds that can persist for a lifetime, both physically and psychologically. It might lead to unwanted pregnancies, enduring mental trauma, and lasting physical complications. The continuous psychological torment, often persisting for the victim's entire life, sets rape apart as a crime that perpetually victimizes long after the act has occurred.
The psychological and emotional scars inflicted by others often have a deeper, more lasting impact than physical injuries. Consider the physically healthy soldiers grappling with PTSD or the victims of emotional abuse, including, notably, those who have survived rape. Such harms to well-being often resist healing and, in some cases, might never truly mend. Conversely, the human body possesses an astonishing ability to recover with appropriate treatments and care. While many might contest my view on which form of harm is more severe, I welcome such disagreements. These varying perspectives only underscore the nuances and complexities of our moral judgments. Such complexities and disagreements further underscore the fundamental point about the variations in our moral perspectives.
In the preceding chapter/entry, we briefly discussed objective morality. Both moral differences and evolution are closely related to this concept. Delving deeper into philosophical discourse, there's a prevailing belief that objective morality is encapsulated by the notion that if a value has an assessable truth quality, then it anchors morality in objectivity. Take, for instance, the statement "stealing is wrong" — it carries an intrinsic truth value. In this context, my views align with noncognitivism, as I don't perceive theft primarily as a moral concern. While it indeed intersects with religious, societal, and legal spheres, I don't categorize it squarely within the moral domain.
If you've read the first entry, you might be thinking I've contradicted myself. I've stated here that I don't see theft as a moral issue, yet in the previous entry, I referred to it as one. Let me clarify: in the first entry, I used theft as an illustrative example because many people do view it as a moral concern. Personally, I don't. However, its common perception allowed for a clearer exposition that most readers could relate to.
This brings us to another salient point: the subjective nature of what individuals consider to be a moral issue. To reiterate, I don't perceive theft as a moral concern in terms of its inherent rightness or wrongness outside societal conventions. In my perspective, honesty is a value rather than a moral dilemma. The same applies to attributes like decorum and politeness, as well as other seemingly minor and largely peripheral behaviors. While principles such as decorum, charity, honesty, and logical reasoning are indeed standard benchmarks in conversations, academic debates, and daily life, none of them represent moral quandaries in my eyes.
I bring this up because when someone highlights another's dishonesty, the retort might be, “Why is being dishonest wrong?” This is a point I believe requires attention. In my view, dishonesty isn't inherently wrong from a moral standpoint; I don't consider it a moral issue at all. However, it is deemed wrong based on societal norms where I reside, as well as in academic and philosophical contexts, which are the primary settings for our discussions on topics like morality. When someone is dishonest in a conversation, it renders the discussion unproductive and essentially meaningless. Ironically, some interpretations of Islam are believed to condone deception towards non-believers in certain circumstances to further the faith.
The most illustrative example of this distinction can be seen in our perceptions of sin, legality, and moral issues. I wish to emphasize that the mere classification of an act as a sin does not intrinsically link it to morality. Similarly, the fact that something is illegal does not automatically classify it as a moral issue. On the flip side, certain prohibitions, when viewed from legal or religious standpoints, may be deemed immoral in my eyes. To elucidate, a sin is essentially a transgression against God or a breach of His commandments. However, these commandments are not necessarily synonymous with moral principles.
In the U.S. state where I live, abortion is illegal. However, I believe the law prohibiting it is immoral because it infringes upon a woman’s bodily autonomy, which is inherently tied to her well-being. Additionally, while the commandment to honor one's parents might hold religious significance, I don't view it as a moral issue. Maintaining a positive relationship and obeying parents doesn't fall under morality in my perspective, unless parents command one to commit an immoral act. In such scenarios, it would be morally justifiable to disobey them.
Continuing the broad spectrum of views about the subject of sex. Premarital sex, in my opinion, is not a moral issue but rather one of values. Yet, certain tenets of Abrahamic theology related to sexuality can be seen as deeply immoral. Specifically, the prohibition of homosexuality is, in my eyes, inherently wrong. Moreover, advocating for the death of members of the LGBTQ community, as found in some scriptural directives, is egregiously immoral. While some might cite these teachings, I, along with many others, find such directives reprehensible and deeply unethical. The notion of preserving one's virginity until marriage is not inherently a matter of morality but is more about individual preference and what one personally values in themselves or their partner.
This not only underscores the stark contrasts in our perceptions of morality but also raises a profound implication. If we had a moral code innately embedded in our DNA, or if morality were truly objective, such variances in defining what constitutes a moral issue shouldn't exist. This isn't merely a divergence of opinion on a specific moral matter; it's a fundamental difference in what is even considered to fall under the umbrella of morality. Such discrepancies challenge the assertion that objective morality hinges on the truth value of a moral fact, especially when consensus on the very definition of these purported moral facts remains elusive.
This isn’t a merging of moral epistemology with moral ontology. To clarify, epistemology pertains to how we arrive at moral judgments, while ontology addresses the essence of what is moral. Put simply, this isn't about confusing the process of determining morality (epistemology) with the intrinsic nature of what is deemed moral (ontology). In the context of this discussion, I contend that acts like sex or theft lack an inherent moral ontology. Naturally, there will be many who disagree with my stance. But that disparity in views is precisely the crux of the matter, isn't it?
One approach to understanding my perspective is to delve into my moral framework. At its core, ontologically speaking, morality is anchored in well-being, as outlined in the initial chapter/entry. My epistemological approach – how I arrive at moral judgments – is rooted in this framework. In essence, the way I navigate and arrive at moral conclusions is based on how a specific action aligns with, or deviates from, this foundational framework, which embodies my understanding of the very nature (ontology) of morality.
Unsurprisingly, people will possess diverse frameworks (ontologies) guiding their moral conclusions. This diversity only strengthens the argument I've been, and will continue, advancing towards my final deductions. In essence, the ontology of morality is inherently subjective, largely because individuals rely on varied moral frameworks to anchor their moral interpretations. The evolution of morality underscores this, as do the differing moral norms within entire religious systems and the individual journeys of people navigating a complex world.
From the examples provided, we've clearly established that moral change occurs and that there are inherent moral differences. Although numerous additional examples exist, presenting more might be redundant for our purpose. As we transition to the second half of this entry, we'll explore the meaning and implications of these findings. This section will conclude with a discussion on the said implications, paving the way for the next entry with a clear and comprehensive understanding of the subjects discussed.
The implications of these moral variations are evident and have been previously mentioned. Nonetheless, they underscore the argument that morality is not static or objective. Morality evolves with humanity and societal dynamics. Issues once regarded as moral imperatives have become obsolete, but more often, they shift in response to changing societal and environmental factors that evolve concurrently with humanity and the world's ever-changing demands. Religion and theology, too, experience this moral evolution. While often influenced by external pressures introducing new moral perspectives, sometimes this evolution originates from within the faith itself. A prime example is Jesus introducing changes to moral teachings in first-century Judaism.
Challenging the idea of objective morality hinges on two primary arguments. The first centers on the definition of 'objective'. Objectivity implies a truth that remains unchanged regardless of human perception. If morality can change, it challenges the very nature of objective truth. If a moral principle is genuinely objective, its validity should persist, unchanged, both a thousand years in the past and a thousand years into the future. It's not that it has to be universally applicable in every situation, but rather that its veracity isn't bound to a specific timeframe.
Advocates of the Abrahamic faiths frequently argue that God allowed certain acts, perceived as immoral by today's standards, due to the societal needs and context of earlier times. While this perspective may seem reasonable, it appears inconsistent when considering the existence of an unchanging God. If morality is truly objective, it should be unwavering, unaffected by human circumstances or societal contexts. If God adjusts His moral stance depending on the times or situations, it suggests a capricious nature influenced by transient factors. And indeed, evidence of God's shifting moral views can be found; one only has to consider instances where Jesus altered moral directives to support this notion. If our perception of morality shifts based on temporal context, then morality cannot be considered objective.
The next aspect to consider is the nature of objectivity, which is rooted in the idea of a proposition being truth-apt. As discussed, this means that there should exist a moral fact, and irrespective of disagreements, its truth value can be assessed. Yet, achieving universal consensus on what qualifies as a moral fact is challenging. On the surface, issues like murder or rape might seem straightforward. But as we delve into more nuanced and intricate moral scenarios, it becomes evident that universal agreement is elusive. Furthermore, time and its contextual shifts can't be overlooked. If a proposition is genuinely a moral fact, its validity should be unwavering across different eras. There's too much disagreement, both in the present and historically, about what defines a moral fact to confidently claim the existence of universally accepted truth-apt moral propositions.
Given the extent and intensity of these disagreements, it's reasonable to conclude that there aren't universal truth-apt moral facts unless anchored in a dedicated framework. Simple declarations don't suffice as a robust foundation to assess alleged truth-apt proclamations. Such reasoning is circular and collapses under scrutiny. Arguing that something is an objective moral fact because it's truth-apt, and then claiming it's truth-apt because it's a moral fact, is a flawed and cyclical argument. This line of thinking is reminiscent of William Lane Craig's assertion: 'Some things are truly wrong, and deep down we all know it.' However, such a stance is vacuous, philosophically empty, and teeters on the brink of sophistry.
In summary, based on our discussions, we've arrived at several conclusions. Firstly, our foundational beliefs about morality are subjective. However, once a specific moral aim is defined, we can make objective evaluations about the best ways to achieve that aim. Without such a foundation or objective, questions of right and wrong linger unresolved. Moral imperatives don't inherently exist; they only gain significance relative to a particular goal. Relying on 'truth-apt' as a moral cornerstone is circular logic, and the variations in moral judgments, both temporally and contemporaneously, further reinforce that morality isn't objective.
If we were to construct a syllogistic argument based on our conclusions thus far, it would appear as follows:
Premise 1: If the foundational beliefs about morality are subjective, then objective moral truths cannot be deduced solely from them.
Premise 2: Our foundational beliefs about morality are subjective.
Intermediate Conclusion 1: Therefore, objective moral truths cannot be deduced solely from our foundational beliefs.
Premise 3: If moral oughts only gain significance relative to a specific goal, then they are not universally objective.
Premise 4: Moral oughts do gain significance only in relation to a specific goal.
Intermediate Conclusion 2: Therefore, moral oughts are not universally objective.
Premise 5: If relying on 'truth-apt' as a moral cornerstone is a circular argument, then it cannot provide an objective basis for morality.
Premise 6: Relying on 'truth-apt' as a moral cornerstone is a circular argument.
Intermediate Conclusion 3: Therefore, 'truth-apt' cannot provide an objective basis for morality.
Premise 7: If moral judgments vary both temporally and contemporaneously, then they are influenced by subjective factors.
Premise 8: Moral judgments do vary both temporally and contemporaneously.
Intermediate Conclusion 4: Therefore, morality is influenced by subjective factors.
Final Conclusion: Given the influence of subjective factors on foundational beliefs, the relativity of moral oughts, the circular nature of the 'truth-apt' argument, and the variability of moral judgments over time and context, morality is not purely objective.
Based on our prior discussions, I'm confident in this argument. Nonetheless, I do anticipate potential objections. In due course, I'll dedicate an entry to addressing these objections and providing rebuttals. For now, I'll forgo that exercise, await any raised objections, and address them as they arise.
A condensed version of the argument would look like this:
P1: All subjective foundational beliefs about morality cannot deduce objective moral truths.
P2: Our foundational beliefs about morality are subjective.
C1: Therefore, our foundational beliefs cannot deduce objective moral truths.
P3: All moral oughts that gain significance relative to a goal are not universally objective.
P4: All moral oughts gain significance relative to a goal.
C2: Therefore, no moral oughts are universally objective.
P5: All reliance on 'truth-apt' as a moral cornerstone that is circular cannot provide an objective basis for morality.
P6: The reliance on 'truth-apt' as a moral cornerstone is circular.
C3: Therefore, 'truth-apt' cannot provide an objective basis for morality.
P7: All moral judgments that vary temporally and contemporaneously are influenced by subjective factors.
P8: All moral judgments vary temporally and contemporaneously.
C4: Therefore, all moral judgments are influenced by subjective factors.
Final Conclusion: Given C1, C2, C3, and C4, morality is not purely objective.
While there exists a symbolic logical formulation of this argument, I've chosen to present it in natural language as previously promised. This avoids over-complicating the discussion with semi-mathematical notations. Though I have such formulations prepared for those interested, I personally find them a bit tedious and headache-inducing, and don't see their necessity in this context.
As we draw this segment to a close, I'd like you to journey back through our discussions — from our deep dive into my moral framework to our critical examination of objectivity in all its nuanced facets. Together, we've paved a pathway for a moral system that neither relies on nor venerates a deity. Our insights into the shifting landscape of morality have underscored its core subjectivity, culminating in a syllogistic argument that encapsulates our perspective. What awaits us in the chapters ahead is an even more enthralling exploration. We'll venture into the sacred realms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, challenging the morality attributed to the Abrahamic God. Furthermore, we'll dissect and spar with popular arguments that champion the existence of God based on moral grounds. Your engagement has been pivotal in this journey, and I invite you to bring the same curiosity and critical thinking to our future discussions. As we stand on the precipice of deeper understanding, let's continue to question, reflect, and evolve. See you in the next chapter.