Click Here to Go Back to the Index
Click Here to Go Back to the Second Half of Part Three
I will now briefly discuss other views regarding morality. I will discuss views based on a belief in an all powerful God, views based on reincarnation, and atheistic views. I will not discuss whether any particular religion is correct or incorrect. In the introduction, I claimed that this "objective morality" is the same regardless of which religion is correct. As a result, I will point out how my views can be reconciled with certain religious beliefs. In the end, I will discuss if the moral beliefs of human civilization improve in the long run with the passage of time.
Some people believe that all morality is based on the will of an omnipotent and benevolent God. In other words, if an action is immoral, it is because God made it that way. If an action is permitted by the correct religion(s), then according to this belief, it is not immoral. This belief, to some extent, is not internally consistent. If an action is immoral only because God made it that way, does this imply that God could have made it otherwise? Could God just as easily have made murder, rape, and torture good things?
Some people might respond that the answer is no because God is good. In other words, it would not be in Gods nature to behave in such a way. However, we are operating under the assumption that an action is immoral only if God said so. Although this objection may point out that God would not suddenly change the rules of right and wrong, it says nothing about how he could have set up those rules in the first place. When creating the Universe, what would have prevented God from making murder, rape, and torture good? Since God had not yet defined right and wrong, God would not have been behaving "wrongly" by writing the rules of morality in such a way. If you believe that all right and wrong comes from God, you can not answer "no" by simply saying that God is good.
Suppose a person answers that yes, God could have made murder, rape, and torture good if he had wanted to. If this is the case, though, the statement "God is good" becomes fairly hollow and meaningless. Under this type of thinking, the only thing that the statement "God is good" implies is that God behaves according to the rules which He chose arbitrarily. This type of view also has a consequence far more serious than simply being inconsistent. There are some people who burn down other peoples places of worship, plant car bombs under school busses, and start religious wars because they believe that this is what God commands. This is often, I believe, the direct result of believing that all morality is defined by God and that God can define it any way He chooses. If you accept this way of thinking, then there is no way to point out that God would not command such things because they are immoral. After all, under this thinking, God could have defined morality any we He wanted. This is one of the reasons why it is not a good idea to claim that an action is not immoral because your religion permits it.
There is a way, though, to believe in an all powerful and benevolent God while still giving a consistent answer to this question. This question is, to some extent, just a variation of the old riddle of if God can create a rock which He can not lift. At first, it appears this riddle can not be answered by a person who believes that God is all powerful. However, this riddle can be answered once you redefine the meaning of the word "all powerful". A person can claim that by saying that God is "all powerful", all he means is that God is capable of doing anything which is logically possible. God would not, for example, be able to cause the statement "2+2=5" to be true. However, this does not prevent God from being all powerful due to the fact that this is not a logically possible task. Any task which is logically possible, this person could continue, can be accomplished by God.
It is possible to answer this question regarding God and morality in a similar fashion. This is by saying that causing the statement "torture is good" to be true is just impossible as making the statement "2+2=5" true. Therefore, God is not capable of doing this but He is still all powerful. This type of thinking is completely compatible with my position regarding morality.
I still need to point out how a statement such as "Religion X permits action Y" can simultaneously be reconciled with a statements such as "action Y is immoral" and "Religion X is the correct religion". There are two ways. The first is by claiming that due to different circumstances, actions which were permissible during the times of the prophets and/or messiahs are no longer permissible today. This argument can also can work the other way. Perhaps actions which were wrong back then are no longer wrong today. A person can argue that the teachings of his religion include both general principles which apply in all times and specific examples of how these principles should be applied to a specific time period. The key, then, is to distinguish the general principles from the specific applications of these principles.
There is another way to reconcile these beliefs. There are some people who believe in Islam and also believe that it is wrong to have more than one wife. This is in spite of the fact that the Koran seems to permit having up to four wives. Some of these people reconcile their beliefs through the following argument. A society can only absorb a limited amount of change at one time. In pre-Islamic Arabia, men were permitted to have an unlimited number of wives. If God had specifically stated in the Koran that men should never have more than one wife, then not very many people would have listened to Muhammad at the time. Going down from an unlimited number of wives to a maximum of one would simply be to great a shock to absorb all at once. This is why, they say, the Koran seems to say that it is permissible to have up to four wives, when what God really wants is for people to have no more than one wife. This type of argument can be repeated with regards to other religions and with regards to other actions.
Some people believe that all morality is based on something such as karma. Under this type of thinking, to state it simply, if you do something bad to others, something bad will happen to you in the future. Similarly, if you do something good for others, something good will happen to you in the future. Often, these beliefs go much further. Under this type of thinking, it is often believed that every bad thing which happens to you is the result of a bad action which you committed in the past. Similarly, every good thing which happens to you is the result of a good action which you have committed in the past. It is this belief which claims that there exists a "perfect justice" which I will be discussing. People who believe in this type of "perfect justice" usually also believe in reincarnation. A baby born blind is explained under this framework by saying that this child did bad things in a previous life. Being born blind, though, is not considered to be a punishment. It is simply a natural consequence of previous actions. This is the same way in which breaking a leg is not a punishment for jumping off the roof of a five story building, but just a natural consequence.
There at first appears to be a problem with basing a morality entirely on such a framework. Under this thinking, people who suffer from poverty and hunger are only in their positions because they behaved wrongly in the past. A person can then ask why it is that we should help these people. The answer to this at first seems to be fairly simple. A doctor should not refuse to treat a patients liver problem just because the problem is the result of the patients past drinking habits. It does not matter that other peoples problems are a result of their own actions. We still have an obligation to help them.
However, the discussion can quickly become very complicated. If "everything" which happens to an individual is the result of that individuals past actions, then we can not affect what will happen to others. If this patient, for example, finds a doctor to cure his condition, then this is the result of the fact that this patient did a good deed in the past. If the patient is unable to find such a doctor, then it is only because he did a bad deed in the past. So if you are the doctor, regardless of what decision you make, you are not going to affect the outcome. If he deserves to find a doctor, he will find a doctor regardless of what you do. The key is in the fact that you do not know in advance whether or not he deserves to find a doctor. After you choose to help him, you will know that he did a good deed in the past to deserve this. Before you help him, though, you have no way of knowing.
If he deserves to get help, who will help him is not predetermined. Perhaps he will get help from you, perhaps from someone else. Nevertheless, he is predetermined to get help. So you are not really changing the outcome of events. In fact, you are incapable of altering the outcome of events with regards to others. But, if whether or not he gets help is totally independent of what you do, why is it that you should help him?
One answer is that helping him is in your own self interest. By helping him, you are ensuring that something good will happen to you in the future. If you refuse to help him, you are ensuring that something bad will happen to you in the future. However, this is just a selfish motivation. Usually, people who believe in this type of basis for morality also believe that actions should not be selfishly motivated. The way to resolve this difficulty to emphasize that an action is altruistic if its "intention" is to benefit others. That is, although you can not influence the outcome of events with regards to this patient, you are acting altruistically because your "intention" is to benefit him. As far as I can tell, a moral system based on this type of metaphysical framework does not contradict my position on morality.
Some people believe that morality is nothing more than behaviors which have evolved to help our survival. The argument for this view is often similar to the following. A society which condones murder is probably not going to survive very long. A society which forbids murder, on the other hand, is much more likely to continue. This is the reason that the societies which are around today forbid murder. In other words, natural selection decides which behaviors will survive the same way natural selection determines which species will survive. Some behaviors impede an individuals chances of survival in a community. Based on this view, this individuals belief that such actions are "immoral" is the result of evolution according to natural selection.
I believe that this type of reasoning regarding morality is flawed. Let us examine how natural selection really works in nature. There are certain bees called drones whos only purpose, as far as the hive is concerned, is to mate with the queen. Drones die immediately after mating. Some drones, however, miss their chance to mate and are still alive after the queen has mated. These drones are now useless as far as the rest of the hive is concerned. The other bees respond to this situation by killing these unproductive drones. So the rules of natural selection seem imply that killing the unproductive members of a society is the way to increase the odds that you and your community will survive.
Human beings do not engage in the same type of behavior, nor should they. This points out that the natural selection view of morality is flawed for two reasons. The first reason is that it makes an incorrect prediction. The theory incorrectly predicts that humans will kill the unproductive members of society. The second reason is that it comes to a conclusion about morality which is unacceptable.
Survival does play a role in determining which behavior patterns will continue. However, survival is not the only factor. What this natural selection view of morality misses is that people can reflect on the morality of their actions. This reflection can overcome the survival criteria.
The theory of evolution is, though, entirely compatible with my view. We should be aware, though, that there is a factor which should be taken into consideration when studying the evolution of organisms like human beings. This is the factor of consciousness. It is reasonable to suppose that the existence of consciousness affects the behavior of an organism. Organisms such as plants do not have this characteristic, and it is possible to claim that all of a plants characteristics have evolved to aid survival and reproduction. The behavior of organisms which do possess consciousness, though, is a different story. In this case, there may be more to it than just survival.
Some people believe that morality consists of attempting to maximize a certain quantity. They disagree with each other on what this quantity is, though. Some, for example, believe that this quantity is happiness. I believe that there are severe problems in this type of thinking. To illustrate one of these, I will recall the scenario of the involuntary organ donor which I mentioned earlier. Suppose that there are two people who need an organ transplant. One of them needs a heart and the other needs a liver. We know that we will not receive these organs from any organ donors in time to save the lives of these two individuals. So, to maximize a quantity such as happiness, we decide to kill an innocent bystander and give his organs to them. In doing so, we have taken one life but saved two. Have we done the right thing? I believe that the answer is no. If maximizing certain quantities is our only moral guide, though, then the answer is yes.
There are additional problems if the quantity you choose happens to be happiness. Happiness is an emotional state and can hypothetically be induced with drugs. If we hypothetically had such a drug which caused no side affects, then under this type of thinking, the only moral thing to do would be to manufacture and use this drug as much as possible. I believe that such a conclusion can not be correct.
Some people belief that morality is based on something similar to a contract. That is, people make promises to each other such as, "I wont steal from you if you dont steal from me". These "contracts" are based on self interest. I will discuss two problems with this. The first is the consequences of this theory. One consequence, for example, is the there is no reason a society should not enslave an ethnic group which only makes up a small minority of the total population. All the slave owners could have made "contracts" to act "morally" towards each other because it is in their self interest to do so. Under this thinking, however, they have no reason to make a similar contract with their slaves if the slaves are in a position where they can not fight back.
There is a more serious problem with this type of thinking. If all morality is based on self interest, why is it that people should not violate the "contracts" they have made in the past. A person can agree to not steal from others if others do not steal from him. But after he makes this agreement, why is it that he should refrain from stealing when he is in a position where he will not get caught? It does not appear that this can be answered within this type of thinking.
There are some people who believe that a society can survive if everyone behaves in their own self interest. I do not believe that it can. People who attempt to base an economic theory based on self interest, for example, assume that consumers and companies will behave according to self interest. However, these same people, without realizing it, then also assume that lawmakers, judges, and police officers will act benevolently. Otherwise, what is to prevent a food manufacturer from selling contaminated food? If "everyone" behaved in their self interest, then it will be fairly easy for this manufacturer to bribe officials to look the other way.
Do the moral beliefs of the human race improve with the passage of time? In order to attempt to answer this question, I would like to repeat something I wrote earlier. I am writing this in 1996. Fifty years ago, segregation was considered acceptable by the vast majority of the population in the United States. Two hundred years ago, slavery was considered acceptable by the majority of the world. Two thousand years ago, it was considered acceptable in Europe to feed prisoners to lions for public entertainment. If you look further back, it was not considered immoral to have servants buried alive with their recently deceased master.
Earlier, I wrote this to point out that checking the current laws or the current consensus is totally useless in attempting to determine the morality of an action. I believe that this also points out a general trend in history for morality to improve with the passage of time. In the short term, such as in the case of Nazi Germany, morality may decline. In the long term, however, I believe it gets better.
This, I believe, is analogous to the progress of science and technology with the passage of time. In the short term, civilizations may decline. Such declines may be accompanied by a decrease in the qualities of math, science, medicine, and engineering. Nevertheless, the general trend is for such things to improve in the long run.
The difference between technology and morality is that there was an unprecedented burst of development of technology with the industrial revolution, while there was no accompanying burst of development with regards to morality. How technologically advanced a civilization is does not necessarily have a correlation to how morally advanced it is. We have to be aware of the fact, though, that neither technology nor morality improve simply due to the passage of time. They improve due to human effort and struggle.
Click here to go back to the index