From: J5J@psuvm.psu.edu (John A. Johnson)
Subject: Re: Atheism not = moral relativism (Was I tried to mail this but...)
Date: 19 Jul 91 12:58:40 GMT
References: <firstname.lastname@example.org> <email@example.com>
Organization: Penn State University
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com says:
>Because atheists admittedly "do not believe in God(s)", their morals/ethics
>must therefore be based on humanistic considerations alone. There is nothing
>'beyond man' to base morality on as an absolute authority. Therefore, what-
>ever morality an atheist accepts is _relative_ to his/her culture,
>& other factors, but not on the Word of God. This is what I call "relativism"
>since any other morality one chooses (genocide, cannibalism, etc.) can be
>substantiated in the same way.
These statements seem to imply that an "absolute morality" is completely
distinct from a morality created by human beings. In a previous post I
presented Harry Browne's arguments against absolute morality. Now that
I am back in the States and have access to my books, I can quote Browne's
inimitable prose at length:
"There are two main characteristics of an absolute morality:
1. It presumably comes from _an authority outside of the individual_.
It comes from someone or somewhere more important than the individual
2. It proposes that the individual should be 'moral' _regardless of the
consequences to himself_. In other words, doing what is 'right' is more
important than one's own happiness.
These two characteristics intertwine, so we'll consider them together.
Absolute morality is the most common type of morality, and it can be
pretty intimidating. You can be made to appear 'selfish,' 'whim-
worshipping,' 'egotistic,' 'hedonistic,' or 'ruthless,' if you merely
assert that your own happiness is the most important thing in your life.
But what could be more important than your happiness? It's said that
an authoritarian moral code is necessary to protect society. But who is
society? Isn't it just a large group of people, each of whom have
differing ideas concerning how one should live?
And if an individual is required to give up his own happiness, of what
value is society to him?
It's also suggested that God commanded that we live by certain rules. But
who can be sure he knows exactly when and how and what God said and what he
meant? And even if that could be established once and for all, what would be
the consequences to the individual if he acted otherwise? How do we know?
And if the code did come from God, it still had to be handled by human
beings on its way to you. Whatever the absolute morality may be, you're
relying upon someone else to vouch for its authority.
Suppose you use a holy book as your guide. I haven't yet seen one that
doesn't have some apparent contradictions regarding conduct in it. Those
contradictions may disappear with the proper interpretation; but who provides
the interpretation? You'll do it yourself or you'll select someone to do it
for you. In either case _you_ have become the authority by making the choice.
There's no way someone else can become your authority; ultimately the
decision will be yours in choosing the morality you'll live by--even if you
choose to cite someone else (you've chosen) as the authority for your acts.
And there's no way you can ignore the consequences to yourself; a human
being naturally acts in terms of consequences.
What happens, however, is that other people introduce consequences that they
hope will influence you. They say that your 'immoral' acts will: 'prevent
you from going to heaven'--or 'cause other people to disapprove of you'--or
'destroy society and cause chaos, and it will all be your fault.'
Once again, however, it will be _you_ deciding for yourself whether any of
these consequences will result and whether any of them are important to you.
The absolute morality fails on its two important characteristics. Even if
you choose to believe there's a higher authority, you are the authority who
chooses what it is and what it is telling you to do. And since you'll
always be considering consequences, even if you try to fix it so that you
aren't, it's important to deliberately recognize the consequences and decide
which ones are important to you."
--Harry Browne, _How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World_ NY: McMillan,
1973, pp. 41-43.
John A. Johnson (J5J@psuvm.psu.edu) Associate Professor of Psychology
Penn State DuBois Campus, DuBois PA 15801 (My views are wholly mine)
"Is there a difference between yes and no?" Lao Tzu "Mu" R. Pirsig