Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Moral Codes

Religious zealots are quite fond of claiming that theirs is the ultimate morality; that anyone who does not follow this morality shall be damned. Religious apologists often claim that atheism is equivalent to amorality, for without an authority (god), there can be no morality. That is to say, the atheist has no basis upon which to determine right or wrong. This essay shall debunk both claims.

There can be no such thing as an absolute morality even if one grants the existence of god. To compare two different moral codes one must first establish a criterion by which to judge these codes. The religious zealot claims that the purpose of morality is to bring oneself closer to god. Thus, those acts which bring us closer to god are good and those acts which take us further away from god are bad. But this is no morality at all, merely argument from personal benefit. The zealot's thinking is as follows, "If one follows this moral code, then they will get to heaven. Therefore, this is the one absolute morality." Furthermore, this is not even a moral code, but rather moral relativism (precisely what the apologists accuse atheists of), for morality is subject to the will of the deity: if he states it is permissible to take slaves only if they are non-Israelites as Jehovah does in the OT, this is then moral behavior despite the inherent relativism of treating one population differently than the rest. In summation, it is far from established that anything a deity exhorts humans to do is therefore moral. Divine orders can only be regarded as moral if one believes that the purpose of humanity is to please the deity.

Having shown that revealed morality is bunk, the remaining task is to establish that an atheist can have morality. To establish a moral code, one must first determine what the purpose of morality is. I propose that the purpose of morality is to both maximize human happiness and minimize human suffering. I also claim that this proposition is a priori true. Even the religious would have to agree--they merely feel that this goal is accomplished by proximity to god and write off the countless atrocities and cruel behavior performed and sanctioned by their deity. Given this proposition all else follows: The formation of society is good, because society offers the weak protection and reduces the labor required to sustain oneself. Furthermore, the best societies will seek to maximize the happiness of the citizenry and minimize the suffering of the population. Thus the atheist can condemn Nazi Germany and any number of other barbaric societies (including the ancient Israelites as described by their own propaganda). Additionally, those actions which promote society are good, those actions which do not are bad. Therefore, theft, murder, rape, adultery, all the actions most people consider 'bad' are easily condemnable by the atheist. Furthermore, harmless actions often derided by the religious such as masturbation and homosexuality are not considered immoral by the atheist. Grey areas are resolved by weighing happiness against suffering, with the latter receiving the greater consideration. Is it moral for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his family? The judaeo-christian man must say no. Jehovah is very clear: Thou shalt not steal. The atheist on the other hand says yes, for surely the suffering of the hungry family is greater than the suffering of the man who finds his bread has been stolen. Put another way, the happiness gained by the family upon receiving a meal is greater than that lost by the baker who will sell one less loaf of bread.

It must be said that this morality is not unique to the atheist. Indeed, most mainstream religious people follow this morality rather than that of their holy documents. It is only the fundamentalist that rejects such a pragmatic morality in favor of mindless obeisance. And only the apologist can deny the very existence of secular humanism.

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