Friday, May 8, 2015

Is it a Good Idea to Base Morality on the Supernatural?

I had just asked the rhetorical question—which I often ask during my talk on the evolution of morality and how to be good without God—“What would you do if there were no God? Would you rape, steal, and murder?” Naturally people agree that they wouldn’t, but in this instance the man said he was pretty sure that if he decided that there were no God he would do just that. I told him Jesus loves him and has a plan for his life and future. - Michael Shermer
I'm always amazed, and slightly alarmed, when I hear people say that if there were no God there would be no reason to be moral. I saw that sentiment expressed today in an online thread. I had said I don't think laws should be based on moral codes that are solely religious in origin. Somebody then asked me:
So, why are you against pedophilia? If you are going to throw out the common moral standard based on Judeo-Christian values, I'd really like to see how you justify anything being wrong.
I thought, "You honestly can't think of any reason pedophilia might be wrong besides 'God doesn't like it'? That scares me." Here's a guy who apparently can't imagine morality without religion, and Judeo-Christian religion in particular. Similar attitudes may explain why some people, such as Phil Robertson, hear others say, "I don't believe in God" and assume they must also mean, "I don't believe in right and wrong."

Anyway, when people tell me they can't see why anyone should be moral if there's no God, I react like Michael Shermer, thinking, "Then I really hope you keep believing in God." It freaks me right out. The only reason it doesn't give me a panic attack is that I don't really believe most people would start stealing and murdering if they stopped believing in God. I'm convinced most of them would go on being the decent people they are. Still, I'm struck by often people say that if there were no God--if morality weren't in some way written into the plan of the universe--then we would have no "real" foundation for morality.

My view is the exact opposite. As far as I'm concerned, what would really make the foundations of morality shaky is for them to be dependent on the existence of God. I believe that for a few reasons*, but the most important is this: We don't know that God exists. What if it turns out he doesn't? Then morality truly wouldn't have any foundation. If most people's morality depends on the proposition that God exists, and they decide he doesn't, then they will see no reason to be moral, and we're headed for Mad Max world.**

And let's face it: God's existence is notoriously hard to prove. The universe is full of things--rocks, trees, stars, IBM, sadness, lying--that every sane person agrees exist. These things are unambiguously perceptible in a way people can agree on. God is not one of those things. We don't have actual, unambiguous evidence that he exists. You can't point a telescope at him and say, "See, there he is."

People who say morality depends on God are basing morality on the existence of an invisible, hypothetical, supernatural being. (Notice I didn't say non-existent--I don't know whether he exists or not). So when I hear them say they can't take any moral idea seriously that isn't based on God, what I hear is, "I can't take any moral idea seriously unless it's grounded in the supernatural." Maybe that's not the most charitable interpretation, but it gives an idea of how shaky it seems to me. People don't like to hear God compared to supernatural phenomena like ghosts, or auras, or Zeus, but I've seen no more physical evidence he exists than there I have that ghosts do. (If you disagree, I have a favor to ask: Don't get mad. Show me the evidence that I'm wrong. If it's convincing, I'll change my mind.)

So, if God's existence isn't a firm foundation for morality, what is? I think it helps to start by asking the following question: In what kind of universe would there be no need for morality? The answer, I think, is a universe where there are no conscious beings to value things, to experience pleasure and pain, to have hopes and dreams, and so on. If the universe were nothing but blind matter going about its business, there would be no need for one part of it to give moral consideration to another part. None of the parts care. The fact that some parts do care, and feel and hope and suffer and so on, is the reason that morality is necessary.

So how about this as a foundation for morality: the recognition that other beings have experiences, wishes, and emotions, just like we do? How about recognizing that their happiness, hopes and suffering are just as real to them as ours are to us? How about the idea that if something hurts another for no reason, then it's likely to be wrong? Or the idea that if it helps another(and doesn't cause wider harm) then it's probably good? Recognizing that other beings' experiences (I say "beings" because I think many animals qualify) are just as real as our own is the first step in acting morally. Once I recognize that the lives and experiences of others are just as important to them as mine are to me, I see that I can't reasonably expect others to treat me morally if I don't do the same for them. What makes me special?

That may seem simple enough, but nothing is that simple--especially moral questions. For one thing, you can't actually prove that someone else's experiences are as real to them as yours are to you. For all I really know, everyone on Earth but me is an automaton. Maybe everybody but me has no more sentience than a Roomba? Maybe, but I don't believe it for a minute. I can't prove that others have experiences and desires just as vivid as mine, but it's a reasonable assumption...if I have them, why wouldn't they?

Another problem with basing morality on the consciousness and preferences of other beings is that it's not that straightforward in practice. The kind of simplistic utilitarianism that says we should maximize pleasure and minimize pain has big problems. For example, it suggests that it's ethically right to kill one healthy person and use their organs to save the lives of five sick people. I don't know about you, but something seems wrong with that to me.

There are other issues with pure utilitarianism, too, but I'm not advocating pure utilitarianism, and I'm not saying that respect for the experience of others is the last word on morality. I'm saying it's the first word. It's a good start, and it's based on something truly tangible. It's not as tangible as a brick wall, but it's much more tangible than the claim that morality is built into the universe in some unspecified way, or that it flows from a hypothetical, invisible being. I am pretty sure others have the same kind of hopes, desires, pains, and pleasures that I do. I'm much less certain that there's a God, or that morality depends on his existence.


* Among them the highly questionable ethics in the Bible (killing homosexuals, adulterers, and disobedient children, dashing Babylonian children's heads against rocks, women being submissive to men, treating the mentally ill as though they were possessed by demons, and and so on), and the Euthyphro Dilemma, which I've talked about elsewhere.

** One thing I'm aware of, and may need to think about more, is that I'm coming very close to the consequentialist fallacy here. If I said, "If people believe morality is based on God, and they stopped believing in God, then the consequences would be bad. Therefore, morality is not based on God. That's a fallacy--what comes after the word "therefore" in that claim doesn't follow from what comes before it. The fact that a claim would have bad consequences if true doesn't mean it isn't true. But this isn't exactly what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that, while the consequences of basing morality on God might be bad, it actually doesn't make sense to base it on God anyway--consequences aside. What makes sense is to base it on recognizing other people's experience as being just as real as mine. If there were no consciousness, feelings, etc., in the universe, there would be no need for morality.