Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Euthyphro's Dilemma: Why You Don't Have to Be Religious to Be Moral

In the last few years, the secularist movement has gained a lot of ground. When asked what religion they belong to, more and more people are responding "none", and so the demographers have dubbed them "Nones". I'm one of them. I'm not an in-your-face atheist in the mold of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but I do read books and follow organizations associated with atheism and secular humanism. But I don't identify with the movement completely, and there are things about it I don't like. First, most of the humanist organizations seem to take it for granted that all their members are atheists, which grates on me, because I'm not. Second, most of them have far too many members who love to ridicule religious people. I think that's generally both disrespectful and counterproductive (though I admit I've done it with some true wackadoodles, like Pat Robertson). Third, I don't like the idea of identifying myself in terms of what I'm not, or what I don't believe in. I'd rather focus on what I do believe in.

Still, I do identify with the secular movement enough to be sensitized to something: lots of religious people assume you can't be moral if you aren't religious. As a non-religious person, I don't much appreciate that. I don't like the idea that I can't be good or moral. Not only is it insulting and prejudicial, it's not true. I'm actually a pretty decent sort, and so are a many other non-religious people. It's just that we base our morality on different foundations than most religious people.

Still, I do understand the "morality requires religion" line of reasoning. The argument is that if morality comes from God, and if you aren't a true believer, then you can't really be moral, since you have nothing to base morality on. That seems to make sense at first, but I think it's misguided for at least two reasons. One is that there's a lot of evidence that people have a complex sense of morality as a result of evolving as an intelligent social animal. That doesn't mean our moral sense always tells us what is really good and right (often it doesn't) but it does explain where our moral sense comes from. The second reason it's wrong is that it's logically incoherent to think that morality is ultimately based on God's will.

Here's why, and I think this is surely one of the most important philosophical ideas ever put forth (it's called the Euthyphro Dilemma, because it comes from a dialogue between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro).

If you say that morality is based on what God wills, that raises the following question: does God will it because of some independent standard of what is moral, or is what is moral simply whatever God says is moral? Many people would say they believe the second option, but only the first actually makes sense. If you think that what is moral is whatever God says is moral, then you would have to agree that if God said that, for example, torturing babies was moral, it would be. But practically nobody would think that, which means they do think there's a standard of morality independent of God. Now, you could say that God is good, so he would never will something bad, but that also shows you believe in a standard of goodness independent of God. 

The Euthyphro Dilemma doesn't (necessarily) mean God is irrelevant to morality, but it does mean that when we ask what makes things good or bad, or right or wrong, saying "because God says so" is not a sufficient answer. So, whether you're religious or not, if you want to seriously think about morality, you have to think about why something is good or bad, apart from God's will, or some "because I said so" command in the Bigle. It's not enough to say something is wrong or right. We have to grapple with why it's wrong or right. Some people might think we still have to rely on God to tell us what is moral, even if there's a standard of morality other than his will, because he knows that standard better than we do. Maybe, but I don't think so (for reasons I don't have time to get into here). I think we have to use compassion, evidence, and reason to decide what is right and what is wrong, and those things are just as available non-religious people as religious people. 

It's true that people might behave better if they believe in divine punishments and rewards (unless they believe they will gain divine reward by doing something awful--and we all know that happens), but such beliefs won't make people more intrinsically moral. If you're only good because “God says so”, or because of the anticipation of rewards and punishments, then you're actually not very good. Good behavior is great, but it's a lot better to be good because we truly feel it's the right thing to do. People who can do that have a true sense of morality, whether they are religious or not.

What Is and What Ought to Be: Speaking Freely About the Big Questions

Sometimes I think all serious questions in life are just variations of two basic Big Questions. Big Question One is "What is true?" and Big Question Two is, "What is good or right?" Put another way, the Big Questions are: 1. What is? 2. What ought to be? For years, I was more interested in Big Question One. I wanted to figure out the basic facts about what reality was like, so I read all about science, history, and other fact-oriented fields. I even tried to write a humongous book attempting to tie the most important facts together in a coherent narrative. Nobody wanted to read it, of course, but I put it online just in case.

After all that time pondering Big Question One, it ocurred to me that I had mostly forgotten to consider a whole other dimension of life; Big Question Two. So, in the last couple of years I've gotten fascinated by the second Big Question, and thought a lot about the foundations of morality and ethics. I want to know what determines what's good and bad, and what's right or wrong. On what basis can we decide how to behave, and how to treat others? This blog has mostly turned into an exploration of those questions.

With both Big Questions, however, if you want to think and write about them, and discuss them with other people (and that is essential) then before long you'll run smack into religion, and then things get touchy. In this country, a majority of people try to answer one or both questions by turning to their Christian faith. Of course, Christianity is diverse, and the Bible is big, complex, and subject to a wide range of interpretations, so different Christians answer those questions in a different ways. Some think we were literally created in God's image sometime in the last few thousand years, while others think scientists are basically right about evolution and the age of the universe, but still think God's ultimately in charge. Some Christians think homosexuality--to take a currently contentious example--is wrong because of things the Bible says, while others think the negative passages about homosexuality should be dismissed as belonging to an ancient, pre-scientific, and rather cruel culture.

Since I live in a country with a large Christian majority, if I want to write openly and honestly about the Big Questions that interest me, I can't avoid discussing the traditional Christian answers to those questions. That's why I end up talking about religion a lot in this blog. I'm interested in morality, which is bound up with religion in most people's minds, and in science, which is often at odds with religion, at least when it comes to more literalist branches of Christianity. In both cases, I usually disagree with the conservative Christian interpretations of these things, and sometimes even the liberal Christian interpretations.

And these aren't trivial disagreements, like disagreeing about whether licorice tastes good or not (it doesn't--it's gross). These are disagreements about things that matter. It matters that people think gay people shouldn't be able to marry, or that global warming can't happen, because of their interpretation of the Bible. Those beliefs determine their actions, and their actions affect others. So I find myself at odds with conservative Christianity a lot of the time, even though I respect some conservative Christians a great deal (I'm planning to blog about the respect issue soon). 

Another reason I talk about religion a lot is that I think it's important for people in a country with freedom of speech to actually speak freely, so I've been much more open lately about being non-religious. These are Big Questions, after all. The answers are important; important enough that if I think some of the dominant religious answers are wrong, and even harmful, then I can't just keep my mouth shut about it for fear of offending the religious. To do so, I think, would be immoral. Which brings me to my next post.