Thursday, 24 March 2011


This essay was written partly in response to my friend Bryn's article on atheistic ethics, but it is basically just a summary of my views on morality, which are quite simple. I present them here in dialogue form.

Is there an absolute morality?

No. Christians are right when they say that there can be no absolute morality without God. Morality is in no way implied by intelligence.

Then what makes an action right or wrong?

Nothing, there's not really any such concept as right or wrong. People do, however, have a sense of altruism, and because of that they find certain actions morally laudable or repugnant.

So morality just boils down to personal preference.

Put baldly, yes, although I feel that the word 'preference' understates the depth of feeling these moral intuitions involve.

This is appalling - anyone can do whatever they want, and there's nothing I can do to stop them!

There's plenty you can do to stop them, ranging from political activism to direct physical intervention.

I believe this is the nub of the issue - people claim that there is an absolute morality, but what they really mean is that their own personal views are superior to those of everyone else, giving them the right to impose their will on others. These people should stop claiming a divine mandate and admit that it's their own moral intuitions they are following.

The fact is that you have exactly the same options for stopping an action whether it's objectively wrong or not, so facing the facts here will not cause you any extra problems.

But God gave me these moral intuitions! By following them I am doing his will.

If God gave them to you, it's strange that he gave different ones to me, and to some people seemingly none at all. In fact it was evolution that gave them to you.

Rubbish, evolution rewards selfishness, it doesn't explain altruism.

This statement shows a typical misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution rewards selfishness on the part of the gene, not on the part of the individual. In fact since we share genes, it rewards altruism on the part of the individual, at least in certain situations.

Well I'm glad I don't live in a society full of people like you. Luckily most people accept that some things are right and wrong - otherwise there would be chaos!

Let's look at this problem the other way around - what do we hope to gain by establishing an idea of absolute right and wrong? Presumably to get everyone to agree on correct behaviour. However, since no-one can agree on what exactly is the absolutely right course of action, agreeing that such a thing exists gets us nowhere. In fact it makes matters worse, since now instead of simply arguing whether a particular action is right we instead debate systems of ethics on an ever more abstract level. Ethicists write volumes discussing the philosophical principles that approximate our personal intuition on the assumption that by doing so they are getting closer to a hypothetical ideal, when instead they could simply abandon the pursuit and accept that those intuitions are themselves the ultimate goal.

And why should we belittle our humanity as the source of our values? Why should we look to an external supernatural force to tell us what to do? We are the ones living our lives. We are the ones who cause suffering to others through selfishness, or happiness through altruism, and are affected ourselves in turn. If morality can be found anywhere, it must be from within,


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