Is it possible to be moral in a world without God? Is a respect for different cultures incompatible with a belief in objective right and wrong? Can there be a universal truth in a world where we disagree about so much?
This article will explore how we might find common ground and shape a morality that is at once universal but still flexible enough to allow reasonable people to disagree.
I believe that morality is best viewed through a series of contexts that I call lenses. Moral claims are only sensible when viewed through the correct philosophical lens. Though they are in some ways contradictory, all the lenses are true from a certain point of view.
Lets discuss some basic lenses that are useful for this discussion and illustrate them with the moral question: Is capital punishment justified?
I talk about this lens a bit in my post on self discovery. From this perspective, we are all fundamentally connected. My life is the result of a myriad of events that happened before my birth. My actions have ripple effects that will last far into the future. What counts as “me” and “not me” is hard to pin down.
Distinctions between self/other, good/bad, and right/wrong don’t make sense in this lens. Moral ideas are all just two sides of the same coin.
This perspective is powerful but not very useful when negotiating the day-to-day concerns of life. We can’t make moral claims of right and wrong here, but we can find inspiration to be more moral.
We can take refuge in this perspective when we face the more difficult parts of life like death, pain and loss. We do this by no longer identifying with the limited concept of self that experiences those things. As we will see later, seeing the world from this perspective can help inform our morality in a profound way.
From this lens, capital punishment is never justified. In fact, the very idea of punishment makes no sense. Everyone is connected and so punishing you is punishing myself. Crimes are only perpetrated by the self on the self.
Through this lens we recognize the identity of separate perspectives. I am one consciousness and you are another.
Once we accept the idea of different conscious entities, we can start making claims about how they ought behave and be treated. If we value conscious beings, we begin to approach a basic foundation of morality. Something along the lines of: All conscious beings are worthy of respect and ought have the opportunity to flourish. In the humanistic lens we are different, but equal.
From this lens, capital punishment is hard to justify, because it implies a lack of respect for the life of a person. At best, it is a practical question. You could only justify capital punishment if it would help more people to flourish (i.e. via deterrance of future crimes) than if it did not exist. Since there is little evidence to support capital punishment as a deterrant, it is near impossible to justify from a humanistic lens.
Through this lens we recognize our own perspective as unique, and our emotional landscape as one that is inherently individual. We love some people and things more than others and have the full range of hopes, fears, etc. that are a natural part of the human experience.
In this lens, we have different moral considerations like loyalty, honor, and family that don’t make sense in either of the other lenses. This is where life gains passion and vibrancy. This is also where most “bad” or selfish motivations arise.
Capital punishment gains most of its justification from the personal lens. If someone I loved was murdered, I would want the perpetrator to die. If I’m honest with myself, I’d want to personally be involved in making sure the murderer suffered and then died. I can think in a humanistic way about capital punishment when we are talking about it in the abstract, but when it is personal my feelings change dramatically. I doubt I am alone on this.
The Foundations of Morality
Fundamentally, I think the project of trying to tie morality to something external to conscious experience is doomed to failure. I agree with David Hume that our sentiments are what create value and moral judgment. Just as chocolate cake is only tasty because people like to eat it, so too is murder only wrong because people don’t want to die.
It is hard for me to even conceive of another source from which morality could spring. An all-powerful God would still seem evil to me if she chose to cause pain and suffering for its own sake.
The lack of an external grounding outside of sentiment does not mean, however, that we can’t make meaningful universal claims about morality. Not all sentiments are universal, but some are. In other words, just because we can’t agree on everything doesn’t mean we can’t agree on some things. In fact, we humans agree on quite a bit, though we only tend to focus on the areas of disagreement.
Universal Moral Truths
There are some truths that every rational person agrees with.
Bad Things- Nearly everyone believes that pain, death, and loss of ability are bad.
Good Things– Nearly everyone believes that pleasure, gaining ability, and the avoidance of bad things are good.
Many people object to the above claims, citing examples of cases where people will voluntarily hurt or kill themselves, or where they view pain as a good thing. Every one of these examples of viewing a Bad Thing as Good (or vice-versa) involves a justification because of another good or bad thing (e.g. suicide to prevent pain, enduring pain to gain strength, etc.).
Sometimes, people will voluntarily seek out bad things, but this is only because they value other good things instead (including the avoidance of even worse Bad Things). No one will choose a bad thing without justification. The only valid justifications are good things.
In one sense, this seems trivial. In another, it is profound. There is so much we agree on when it comes to basic questions of good and bad and this gives us the hope of establishing a universal morality. In fact, we only disagree on three fundamental questions.
How, Who, and What
We differ in moral judgments in only 3 ways:
- How we rate the good and bad things against each other (e.g. pain vs. death)
- Who we choose to include in our sphere of moral concern (e.g. animals, the unborn)
- What is true about the world (e.g. is there an afterlife, will a vaccine work)
In making moral choices we wrestle with those differences:
We may choose to endure the pain of an injection to prevent disease
We may choose to steal from others to help a loved one
We may choose to die so that we can gain eternal bliss in the afterlife
We may choose to torture and slaughter animals for food, clothing or product testing
We can have moral discussions about what is good and evil using the language above within the humanistic or personal lens. Within these lenses, we can condemn a sociopath who likes to torture babies. We can also make arguments that one course of action is better or worse than another based on the aggregate harm or good it does.
The Fuzzy Cloud Of Morality
This may not be the “robust” morality that many people look for, because it does not with precision always give a right or wrong answer. I believe that any universal morality must allow for reasonable people to disagree. It requires only that we have a common ground within which we can make moral claims. Thus, we can agree universally that torturing babies for fun is wrong, even while we might disagree about whether a mother has the right to abort her fetus.
Morality in this sense is like the particles in a cloud- there are some things clearly outside or inside its bounds, but there are many things along the edges for which it is unclear where they stand. For many moral questions, there is no single right answer- but that does not mean that all answers are equal.
We shape the boundaries of morality through discussion and persuasion and morality can evolve over time as the sentiments of humanity evolve. And this, I believe, is where the Universal lens comes in handy. The more we can get people to see the world through the non-dualistic universal lens, the less attached they are to their personal perspective and the more they can be persuaded to adopt a humanistic morality. We are all confused and struggling in this world. It is much easier to have compassion for our fellow conscious beings when we realize that we are in fact all connected.
Toward a More Moral World
Within this paradigm, we can thus work to create a more moral world. How do we do this? Through skillful discussion and cultivating perspective.
Understand that other people have fundamentally the same ideas of good and bad that you do. Try to use language that will appeal to those ideas, while being understanding of the Who, How, and What of disagreement. Recognize where you can have reasonable disagreement and try to persuade people rather than judge them as “evil” or “stupid.”
Take the time to experience universal connectedness. This can be done through meditation, music, and being in nature. Seek out experiences of awe and wonder. Experiences of awe are very much experiences of something far greater than ourselves, and this helps shake us out of the personal lens which can cause so much harm when used unskillfully. By connecting ourselves to something bigger than ourselves (or better yet to all things) we can cultivate a moral sentiment that is more compassionate and inclusive.
Practice and cultivate compassion. Help others. Play with puppies. Create art. Give lots of hugs. Spend time with loved ones. Try to remember that everyone out there is someone else’s loved one.
Surrounding ourselves with beauty, love, and wonder is a powerful way to make the world a better place. Through these things, we can cultivate the sentiments that will fuel our moral growth.
I don’t view this perspective as an atheistic one. Whether there is a god or not, we need a morality that can stand on its own. By accepting uncertainty and the power of our sentiments, we gain solid ground upon which we can build a better world.
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