Monday, February 11, 2013

What Makes a Man Good Part One

No, not good in bed.  That's a whole other article for a whole other time.  Silliness aside, it's a question that humans have been asking themselves for a long ass time: what makes men do the right thing?  What keeps us from hurting others willy-nilly?  What stops us from going on shooting sprees and bombing buildings full of children?

I have noticed something in the blogoville recently that sort of tickled me, and I think it is central to understanding how humans perceive themselves.  Many of my Conservative cohorts have expressed on more than one occasion that without God, there would be no morality.  Polar opposite to that, one of my Liberal cohorts said a week ago, or so, that "the law is all we have," and without it man would not be moral.

Let's explore how the hardcore Christians think.  For whatever reason, they think that God is the originator of morality, and that without God, morality would not exist and man would not be moral.  That's an interesting thing to ponder, so I'll see your theology and raise you some Plato.  In Euthyphro, Plato asks this question that is pretty hard to answer: what makes an action pious?  Do the gods love piety because it is inherently pious, or is it pious because the gods say so?

If that was a bit convoluted, let me rephrase: is an action moral simply because God says it is moral, or can certain actions be inherently moral?  Some people are going to say that it's moral because God says so.  But if you think about it, there's a lot that the Bible, or whatever religious text you like, does not cover.  For example, the Bible describes morality between humans, but what about morality between humans and other sapient species?

If aliens showed up one day, would we owe them the same dignity and morality, the same protection of their natural rights as sapient beings that we would owe another human being?  And what about slavery?  There is no moral condemnation of slavery in the Bible.  In fact, the Bible goes to some lengths to describe slavery that is in accordance with God's law.  But no one today would argue that slavery is moral.

And what if man one day irrefutably discovered that there is no God?  Would all things moral suddenly cease to be moral?  Would everyone then be plunged into a binge of debauchery and immorality?  Probably not.  Trust me, friends, there are plenty of Atheists out there who are more moral than most Christians.

Even if God exists and did indeed create the universe, it was done so in a way that certain things would inherently be moral. If God did not exist, it would still be righteous to do kindness to others. All of our actions would not suddenly become morally neutral. Few people would reason that the murder of children is totally fine. Just because God created the universe does not mean he personally created everything in it, but it means that he created the conditions for certain things to exist.

You wouldn't say that because God created the universe, that means he created automobiles, would you? Just as well, God created a universe in which the conditions allowed for the existence of morality.  The automobile only exists in reality insofar as there are people who were able to create the automobile, and as long as automobiles physically exist.  The same is true with morality.  If sapient beings did not exist, then morality would only exist as an idea--something that has the potential to exist.  Because what is morality other than actions committed by human beings that are considered to be pious? 

If humans do not exist, then those actions cannot be committed.  So like the automobile, morality would only exist as something that has the potential to be actually realized.

I admit that the fear of eternal damnation compelled me to do the right thing for a while.  But there came a point in my life where I decided that I truly don't care.  I won't be frightened or coerced into doing the right thing on the off chance that doing the wrong thing might land me in a place of eternal suffering and torture.  I don't mean to be insulting, but that is childish.

Morality exists without God.  Most people know this in their hearts, because they know that if one day God's existence is disproved, they would still not be able to bring themselves to murder and steal and do harm to others.  They would not go out and get sloshed every night, or engage in extra-marital, promiscuous sex.  They wouldn't do this because they would still have a sense of dignity and personal responsibility.

I'm going to do what I think is right, regardless of what a damn book tells me.  I'm going to try to live my life with dignity, personal responsibility, and I'm going to try to do right by my fellow man.  I don't want to cause harm or suffering to others, and I want to live a life of general moral piety and ethical righteousness.  If God exists and is angry at me for following my personal conscience--the conscience he supposedly gave me--and if my attempt to leave this world a better place than I found it is not pleasing to him, then I will happily march my own "immoral" ass to the gates of Hell.

And if there is no God, I will continue to do the right thing and treat people with the respect and dignity they deserve.

In part two of this three part series, I will talk about the flip side of this grand question: the notion that man only does the right thing because of the law.  In part three, I will discuss what I think the actual answer is to this question.  Hint: I think it has nothing to do with God or the Law.


Jersey McJones said...

Well, when I wrote, "the law is all we have," I did not mean to confer that "without it man would not be moral." I meant it in the context of what actions a people can take to maintain a civil society if they deem it necessary and there seems to be no other way.

"Morality" is just a sort of natural civil code that evolved with us as social animals as we evolved. All social animals display some form of recognizable "morality."


Jack Camwell said...

This is what I will discuss on Wednesday, but for now I can tell you that it is NOT the law that keeps me from murdering children.

Jersey McJones said...

Believe me, Jack, that was the very last thing I had in mind. In the context of my quote, I'm talking about regulating the gun trade to reduce the volume of "illegal" guns, and availability of those guns to troubled people or criminals, on the streets of America.

This has nothing to do with you flipping out. In fact, it really has nothing to do with you whatsoever.

As for morality, it is what it is: A social mechanism of human evolution, and product of it. There are other mechanisms as well. Like Law, which partially comes from morality, as well as exchange and order, and vengeance and greed.

People who ascribe morality linearly and exclusively to religion are simply not being realistic. We can see morality evolving right along with us all the time, all over the world, in sometimes crazy ways. But religion, belief in God, is only one of the social mechanisms at play. We don't need God to tell us not to murder our children any more than we need the law. Murdering is unnatural. Counter-evolutionary.

Just the same, we don't need God to tell us not to murder our children any more than we need God to tell us to do it. And God knows that's happened a lot.

Irrational is as irrational does.

The irony of the argument that we need religion for morality is that religion itself is one of the crazy social mechanisms of human evolution. It's just crazy.


Ducky's here said...

Belief in God, the law, some type of authority.

Freud showed us that we are simply not aware of our complete nature and we are not entirely wired for good.

Call the authority what you will.

Curt Fouts said...

The goodness of ones actions depends upon the system of morality you are using. As you point out, Christianity is but one of many moral philosophies.

Of course, the Big Three monotheistic religions believe we have morality stamped upon our souls, even those of us who chose to completely thumb our noses at it.

As CS Lewis pointed out, one who would rob me of an apple nonetheless does it knowing it is wrong.

Jack Camwell said...

Thank you for visiting Curt, but I have to disagree ever so slightly with you.

While I agree that there are a lot of moralities that depend on the religious system you're looking at, I would say that there are a few things that are universal.

In virtually every culture--even the murderous ones--there is a notion of unjustified killing. Even societies that were into human sacrifice only did so because they thought the sacrifice was just.

I do agree with you, though, that the morality of my religion (Catholicism) is very much a part of my moral compass, although I don't believe in Catholic morality in its entirety.

But as Jersey notes, religion is a human construct. Now, some of my religious cohorts may disagree with me, but even if God exists, religion is still a human construct. It's a human way of understanding that which he has no hope of ever fully understanding.

That's not to say that all religion is untrue--surely there are grains of truth in each religion--but religion is still man-made.


I would say that although religion is not the origin or source of morality, there are a lot of people who DO need it in order to be moral. I've known a couple of CHristians who legitimately said that if they found out God didn't exist, then they would do whatever they want because there would be no fear of eternal damnation.

Call me crazy, but doing something simply because you are coerced to do it sounds pretty half-hearted to me. I'm sure you agree with that.

Jersey McJones said...

Yeah, there are a lot of people out there who need structure to behave. Think of the pathological recidivist who spends most of his life in prison, but the prison is one of the mind - to be convinced you have found all the answers. I think that's why religious people in America today tend to be more conservative; a modern society like our almost in and of itself refutes the existence of God, yet this makes religious people cling all the more, and meanwhile social, economic and geopolitical realities have refuted conservatism, and conservatives get all the more conservative.

And the wind just blows by them.


Curt Fouts said...

"I would say that there are a few things that are universal."

I agree. What I said does not disagree with that. I was merely agreeing with you that Morality, broadly stated, is a human construct even as I, like you, adhere to Christian/Catholic morality.

Christians explain your statement by saying, "yeah sure, we share some universal moral ideas, because God made us."

But just as easily, non-believers could chalk it up to to the same reason we all have noses.

jez said...

I'm just getting round to reading about Isaiah Berlin's objective pluralism. Are you already familiar with it?

Anonymous said...

Don't read. THINK!

Think for YOURSELF.

If yo read too much, you are letting others do your thinking for you.

Dick Wilde

Jack Camwell said...

If you read too little, you're trapping yourself within the confines of your own perspective.

FreeThinke said...

What you don't seem to understand yet, Jack, is that everything you see, hear, taste, feel -- and read -- is filtered through the veil of your individual perceptions and your acculturated biases.

Some look at the Venus de Milo and see only a hefty-looking lady who doesn't have any arms with a cold expression in her blank eyes; others feel thrilled to be in the presence of a tangible piece of a long vanished period in history, and will marvel at how standards of beauty change from age to age and culture to culture. They will also sense the wonder of an unfathomable mystery.

Who was this woman? What was her life like? Was she modeled from life, or is she just a creature dreamt up in the imagination of the sculptor -- a composite perhaps?

To whom did the statue belong? What place did it have in its original household?

What glorious triumphs or homely domestic disputes has it witnessed? What acts of love? What dastardly deeds?

All that we can only imagine, but in using our imagination and exercising our capacity for CURIOSITY we can learn much we never knew before -- especially about ourselves.

Are you familiar with Keats' Ode on a Graecian Urn?

If not, you ought to be. It's entirely a work of Keats' vivid imagination, but it was inspired by a presumably genuine object from Antiquity.

I happen to believe -- contrary to the orthodox views of academia -- that there's more truth in Art, Music, Drama , Literature and Poetry than there is in "History." At least history as a dry recital of facts with dates attached to them.

jez said...

Problem is you've probably arrived at that opinion without troubling many history books or addressing the orthodoxy of academia.

NB I certainly don't claim that I myself know what the academic orthodoxy is in the humanities, I'd just be surprised if you did.

Art is the lie that tells the greater truth. The truth is there (if we're lucky), but you're a fool if you forget about the lie.

Jack Camwell said...


I am constantly baffled at your baseless assertions against me.

"What you don't seem to understand yet, Jack, is that everything you see, hear, taste, feel -- and read -- is filtered through the veil of your individual perceptions and your acculturated biases."

What you fail to realize is that I realize all of that. I am painfully aware of my own biases and of the fact that I may have it all wrong.

And what is art but the expression of truth *through someone's particular perspective*?

At least with history we can say on this day, at this time, someone did something worthy of note, or that a particular event took place. The recital of facts might be dry, but assuming that the record is right, it's hard, factual truth.

Now of course, any good historian will tell you that ultimately, the dates are meaningless so long as you at least know the decade in which the person lived or the event occurred. What is actually important in history is the significance it bears on humanity.

No one cares that I had taco bell for dinner last night, but Alexander the Great's conquest--yes, that had quite an impact on the human race.