Messy Muddled Morality


For many religiousnothing-written-in-stone-relative-morality people there is comfort in the belief that moral questions have all been answered by their holy books. I can see the appeal of rules and structure, in that following a recipe will lead to the desired outcome. It must be nice for them to be able to open a book and find a specific commandment to suit the situation. From my perspective, life as a religious person must be similar to a trip to Ikea, walking a one-way path with every problem a flat-packed box of building materials and a set of instructions on how to solve it. Even in difficult situations where there is no clear answer, the fallback position is that even though they may not know the correct answer, there is a god who does and at some point, in the afterlife they will know it as well.

Of course, for those of us on the outside of religion we can see that this certainty is misplaced. The evidence for this is the many different religious beliefs and practices even from those who are reading from the same book of instructions. It’s unlikely that in any church, mosque or synagogue that we would find even two believers who have identical views on all moral questions. In addition, it’s a surprisingly pleasant coincidence for the believers that they seem to find a god who agrees with all of their own moral positions. How convenient is that?

For atheists though, morality is not quite so simple. We understand that there is no instruction book and so we look elsewhere for a foundation to build our lives on. For many of us, we recognize that atheism itself is nothing more than a lack of belief in god and so we must go elsewhere for guidance. Whether we identify as atheists, skeptics, or humanists, one thing that we all seem to have in common is a commitment to following the evidence where it leads us. We acknowledge that using science has the best track record for discovering what is true about the world and so we put our trust in science to help us discover those truths.

Science has been wonderful for helping us to answer many questions. Particularly in the types of questions that hinge on finding out hard facts. It’s a no-brainer for us to accept that evolution is a fact, that disease is not cured by prayer. These are the easy questions. And on these types of questions, the atheist community is pretty much united in our positions once sufficient evidence has been examined.

But when it comes to questions of morality, of how we should live, science is not always so helpful. At the very least, not always so certain. When we discuss issues around politics, economics, equality, or justice, sometimes it seems as if the atheist community is just as divided as the People’s Front of Judea. Many of us would identify as believing that a diversity of views is a good thing. In theory, anyway, much more difficult in practise. When questions arise that involve our values, or our identities, it’s very hard to examine the issues objectively, when we personally are the objects of examination.

It’s not that science has nothing to say about these moral questions, as there are domains of science that ask these questions and try to find answers, but the sciences that are best suited to address these questions, are often considered the “softer sciences”, such as sociology or psychology, that don’t seem to get the same level of respect as the sciences that give us more concrete answers. These are the types of sciences that can give us answers about the very issues that seem to cloud discussions of morality or ethics. For example there are studies conducted that demonstrate our human tendencies toward confirmation bias that serve to reinforce what we already think is true. This is quite easy to agree with in theory, even more so, when attributing this tendency to the other person, not so easy to accept when we turn it to ourselves.

Among many atheists that I know, another common value that seems to unite them, that doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in the religious community, is the acceptance of not knowing the answer. When it comes to questions such as how the universe began, or what happens after we die, we seem to be fairly comfortable with accepting that we don’t know, and quite possibly may never know. But when it comes to moral questions, we aren’t as comfortable with ambivalent positions.

With the recent horrific murders of the employees of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that occurred in Paris, murders committed for the imaginary sin of blasphemy, the atheist community responded with vociferous condemnation of the attacks. But even in their unified position, it appears that the devil is in the details, as arguments went back and forth over questions regarding how to show solidarity for contentious free speech. Talking about a fundamental human right and our responsibilities to each other requires us to examine our values, things that are held very personally and intertwined with our identity and our own perspective, not easily looked at with the same objective rationality that we are accustomed to using with other types of questions. And yet we feel compelled to take a position, even when the answer is not so clear.

A few years ago, Sam Harris wrote a book called “The Moral Landscape” in which he put forward a case for using science to help us answer moral questions. These questions, about human wants and needs, happiness and suffering, have traditionally not been something that appeared amenable to scientific inquiry. Morality has historically been in the unique position of being so complex as to keep the philosophers busy for ages and yet also been so easily solved by each one of us as we negotiate living together in community, convinced that we have the right answers. For myself, I believe that Harris is right, that as we explore the frontiers of neuroscience, adding to the work done in other fields of inquiry in psychology, sociology and biology, and with the commitment to following the evidence where it leads, that we will get closer to the answers that we seek. The only instruction manual that we will have is the one we write ourselves.

– Diana Goods


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