Of course, theists gravitate to questions of this sort because in the final analysis, their theistic worldview depends on having no answers. What this means is that believers are hoping for responses that essentially reduce to “Gee, I donno!” revealing a gap of knowledge in which the believer’s inflatable god can be made to fit quite comfortably. As such, the purpose of this question is not to probe an important philosophical area of inquiry, but to corner thinkers into surrendering their minds to a primitive belief system.
Deficiencies that tend to be common to each of these approaches include:
- The assumption that morality is essentially or primarily a social matter
- The failure to explain why man needs morality
- The assumption that morality is uncomfortable if not downright punitive
- The assumption that self-sacrifice is virtuous
- Proneness for taking man’s need for values for granted
I find this ironic because in spite of the accusations, name-calling and hostility expressed on both sides, secularists and theists tend to have a lot more in common under the skirt than most on either side would be comfortable confessing (without, of course, spinning those commonalities in some self-affirming manner). Both sides, in their own ways, tend to divide all of humanity into two opposing collectives, the chosen vs. the damned. If their behavior is any indication, morality must have come from a very dreadful place!
And, as a side note, what I find both instructive and, dare I say a tad humorous, both religionists and secularists overwhelmingly have only disparaging things to say about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism: they’re locked tight in agreement that (a) morality is a collective enterprise which is distinguished by self-sacrifice and which takes values for granted, and (b) Objectivism is bad. Notice any patterns here?
Discussions between theists and non-theists on the topic of morality often (but certainly not consistently) suggest that both parties are in general agreement that morality is somehow important and assume that morality is necessary for some reason. But who needs morality and why anyone would need morality are typically not issues that come up for discussion. Unfortunately, by not exploring these issues before getting into questions about “where morality comes from,” thinkers allow any number of hidden assumptions to go unacknowledged and unchallenged. This raises the suspicion, in my mind anyway, that morality is important to many thinkers for the wrong reasons. For example, theists, especially apologists, tend to find morality important primarily as a club to beat over the heads of non-theists while many secularists seem to find issues of moral concern important only insofar as they can deflect theists’ challenges on the topic (otherwise, free spliffs for all!).
Moreover, exploring the questions of why morality is important and who needs it encourages (if not outright forces) thinkers to formulate a clear understanding of what they mean by morality in the first place. Efforts to explain why morality is important and why an individual needs it will not be complete without a succinct definition of what morality is.
However, as I’ve mentioned in past posts on this topic, I have not found a definition of morality in the Christian bible.
Apologists sometimes dismiss this observation by declaring that the bible is not a dictionary or lexicon. But this overlooks the fact that a book need not be a dictionary in order to define important terms. After all, doesn’t 1 John 3:4 constitute a definition of ‘sin’ when it states “sin is the transgression of the law”? And doesn’t Hebrews 11:1 offer a definition of ‘faith’ when it states “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”? In fact, if a source presumes to present itself as an authoritative guide on a matter as important as morality, wouldn’t it behoove its writers to at the very minimum define their terms? Excuses for the bible’s failure to do just this while insisting that it is so authoritative a guide on morality as to call it “divinely inspired,” simply crumble at first handling. But again, perhaps understanding what morality is and why anyone would need it is not the priority here; as I mentioned, my suspicion is that religionists have come to view discussions of morality useful primarily for their apologetic expedience.
So where does morality come from after all?
Generally speaking, it seems quite clear to me, when considering the question “Where does morality come from?” in its most charitable light, that one has fundamentally two initial options by way of answering it: on the one hand he can suppose that morality comes from existence, or on the other he can suppose it comes from non-existence. My own view is that morality comes from existence, not from non-existence, from what is real as opposed to what is not real, and I think it’s important to make this explicit at the very beginning as it rules out an entire category of inapplicable contenders from the outset.
Of course, some thinkers of course may bristle at such a confrontation as this, either thinking it unnecessary, or finding it crass and insensitive. I can only suppose that such reactions are motivated by an urgency to preserve a blurriness between what is real and what is not in order to protect something held sacred.
There may be some reasons for this, but most likely they would be prejudicial in nature. For example, in my experience academic philosophers in particular tend to prefer highfalutin jargon, circuitous complexity, and symbolic calculus which, although fashionable in analytic philosophy, leave the issue shrouded in obscurity. Moreover, failure to distinguish explicitly between existence and imagination, for example, increases the possibility for thinkers to ignore this distinction and confuse what they have been imagining all along with what is real. Any thinker will always have the ability to imagine things larger than life, and given that what he imagines may break far beyond the constraints of reality, the reality that actually exists may tend to seem less significant and merely temporary by comparison, especially if he is not mindful of the fundamental nature of the distinction between the two. The reality of flesh and blood, of fragile bones and proneness to disease, for example, that is inherent to the human condition, can only pale in significance when compared to a preferred imaginary alternative such as “the resurrection” or a socialist utopia.
So a theist, whose worldview stands on the very blurring of the distinction between reality and imagination, may in fact be predisposed to dismissing a theory of values which takes seriously reality as it actually is (as opposed to fantasized alternatives) and which centers its focus on man’s biological needs, needs which he himself faces whether he likes it or not, and on the values which satisfy those needs which he may take for granted (cf. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself” – Mt. 6:34).
However, even if a thinker agrees that these are important distinctions to keep in mind, he very well may not find the answer “morality comes from existence” very satisfying. In that case there’s good news: we can be more to the point. Not only does morality come from existence, it specifically comes from man’s need for values, something which demonstrably and undeniably exists as an inherent part of his nature as a biological organism. It is man’s nature qua the rational animal which lays the metaphysical foundation of an objective system of morality and dictates which moral system is suited to his nature.
Like all biological organisms, man faces a fundamental alternative: life vs. death. Life is not an automatic given for man. His life is conditional, which means: he has certain needs which must be met in order for him to continue living. Meeting these needs does not happen all by itself. On the contrary, man must act, and he acts by choice, and thus he needs an objective standard on which to build a code of values to guide his choices and actions. This is absolute and inalterable, and an individual’s moral system needs to take these facts into account.
To dismiss these points as “subjective” represents a failure to grasp what is being defended here. It also suggests a failure to grasp the distinction between objectivity and subjectivism. Objectivity is the application of the primacy of existence (i.e., the recognition that the objects of consciousness do not depend on or conform to conscious activity; cf. the addage “wishing doesn’t make it so”) to all spheres of knowledge, evaluation, and judgment, including moral choices. Subjectivism is the result of granting metaphysical pirmacy, either implicitly or explicitly, to the subject of consciousness over its objects – e.g., the universe is a product of an act of will, wishing makes it so, reality conforms to preferences or commands, praying to invisible magic beings can alter history, supernatural beings can perform miracles, etc. An objective morality would need to be a morality based explicitly and uncompromisingly on facts relevant to man’s nature and his need for values, and that is precisely what I am affirming and endorsing in answer to the question “Where did morality come from?”
It’s even worse to dismiss a conception of morality informed by facts relevant to man’s need for values as “subjective” and then claim that morality finds its source in the will of a supernatural consciousness. You can’t get any more subjective than that!
It has always occurred to me that, if an individual were authentically interested in the nature of morality, its metaphysical basis, and the reasons why man needs it, he would be open to considering Objectivism’s unique contributions to this most important area of inquiry. At the very least, he would be eager to explore questions about what morality is and why it is important.
But apologists are clearly more concerned about validating the relevance of their theistic commitments and using questions about the nature and basis of morality as a means of propping up their religious pronouncements than they are about moral questions as such. This can be observed in the ways in which apologists react to fact-based analyses of moral theory and treat specific arguments about morality’s nature.
Apologists are continually pre-occupied, to the point of an obsessive fixation, with the atheist-vs.-theist conflict and characterizing anything that is not expressly theistic as personally and deliberately hostile to a divine agency. We are all in “rebellion” against their god, so they assume, and any views one may hold that are incompatible with their theology must be the result of some open revolt against “the Lord.” The views that any particular atheist might happen to hold can never be allowed to be the product of a sincere quest for discovery and enlightenment, but rather a symptom of innate depravity.
by Dawson Bethrick