Some people try to argue that morality is simply a human convenience which enables us to live together in comparative harmony. In other words, that it is simply relative, and that there are no absolute standards. Indeed, if people reject a belief in God, I do not see how they can say anything else. Unless there is ultimately a law-giver who will call to account, why should people observe moral standards more than is necessary to achieve co-existence? The question can, in fact, be taken even further. Why should they observe moral standards at all? This has always been a problem for the atheistic philosopher.
The interesting thing, though, is that even though they view ethics as relative, there are very few who will come out openly and admit what the significance of that is. They still wish to be considered respectable. To be fair, we must go further. They are often decent people and being aware of what facing up to the full facts would mean, they try to find a way round them. They are aware that other people KNOW that morals are important (although they may not know why) and would not look favourably on a theory that rejected morals altogether. So they try to build up a theory that somehow reinstates morals on a different basis. But the truth of the matter is that they are ‘cheating’. It is because they are aware of a moral sense that they take up this position. It is not logically justifiable.
When Hitler chose to send millions of people to the gas chamber, and to destroy the Jewish race and enslave millions of all races, was he wrong? The atheist can say that he was going against the view of the majority of people and that it was not very pleasant. He can say that most decent people would be against it. He can say that it is against the views of what he would call civilised society. He can say that it did not contribute to maximum human happiness. And if that is what he means by wrong, he can say it was wrong. But that is not genuine morality. It was equally open to Hitler to say that he disagreed with the views of the majority of ‘decent’ people, that he did not accept the dictates of ‘civilised’ society, that he was only interested in the happiness of his own people, and that it seemed to him of benefit to the society in which he lived to do these things. He could argue that he was following out the rule of the survival of the fittest. Indeed, that is what he DID claim.
And what can the atheistic philosopher reply (unless of course he agrees with him). He can only say ‘the majority is against you’. But we all know that the majority is not always right. Why should Hitler obey the majority? He may have come out of things better if he had. But if we do not believe in a law-giver and absolute morality we cannot say that he was morally wrong in the sense in which most people mean morally wrong. We can only say that he was ill-advised and had unpopular views. (Not all evil men have had their come-uppance in this life).
This was the problem that Bertrand Russell could not escape (in another context). He admitted that there were some things he had to agree were wrong in themselves. One example he gave was that of particularly vicious cruelty to children. He admitted that there was no way that he could state that that was anything but wrong in the fullest sense of the word. But by doing so he gave the game away. Fortunately for him he was so clever that he soon diverted people’s minds away to other subtle arguments so that they forgot that he had destroyed his whole position. The truth is you cannot logically argue for relative morality if you accept something is absolutely wrong as he did.
We can argue all we like that ‘evolution’ has instilled this view into us. But that does not make it right. It only makes it a convenient accident (some people who want to ignore morals would argue that it was an inconvenient accident, the consequences of which they were escaping ). It gives morality no authority.
Yet I have never met anyone who was not aware of the difference betwen right and wrong as a concept in its own right. Even evil men become laden with guilt, and no one shouts louder for his ‘rights’ than an atheist. The truth is we all know the difference between something being right and wrong for its own sake, or being merely ‘wrong’ because it did not fit in with most people’s ideas. We know that being ‘morally wrong’ means more than just not fitting in with our views, or the views of society. And we know, as Bertrand Russell did that some things are morally wrong in themselves.
The test of morality comes when we are faced up with doing something which we know to be ‘right’ even though we may not want to do it and certain members of society disagree with us. We know we have to do it because our conscience tells us so. But what is this conscience, and why should we obey it?
It is, of course, taking the easy way out just to say that it is the voice of God. It is considerably more complicated than that. But if it is not something with absolute authority why should we obey it? And if it is only the product of evolution it does not have that authority. Evolution cannot give ‘authority’ to anything or anyone (unless it is transformed into a sort of deity). Can conscience really ‘make cowards of us all’ if it has no substantial basis?
It is true that if we are prepared to say that conscience is simply an accident of nature, and that therefore there is no logical reason why we should have to obey it, we can retain an atheistic standpoint. But we must never then go on to say that something is right or wrong without qualifying it and saying we mean ‘not convenient’, or ‘not in accord with the view of the majority. To be logical we must take up the position I have outlined earlier of stating that Hitler and child torturers are not wrong, they are just a little different in their views from the majority. There can be no condemnation, just disapproval.
Of course a lot of people do live as though morality does not matter for quite some of the time, but there always comes a time when they are aware of feeling guilty, and knowing why they are feeling guilty, when they become aware that what they have been doing is wrong.
This can especially be awakened when they come in contact with some great moral teacher. When Confucius, and Socrates, and Jesus, and others, taught, men responded to that teaching and became morally aware. And though ‘evil’ men did away with many of them because at the time it conflicted with their interests, the view of the majority has been that those evil men were wrong. And it is probably true to say that, given a different perspective, those same men would have accepted the general viewpoint. It was only because they were caught up in the circumstances of the time and their own self interest that they were unable (or unwilling) to stand back and say, ‘What these good men say is right’.
The problem with Socrates and Jesus was that they could always make men aware of the falsity of their own position and that was why such men hated them. It was because their moral sense had been awakened, and then quenched for the sake of convenience, that they put them to death.
The fact that we cannot make a list of things which are ‘absolutely’ right which all men would agree with does not negate this position. Moral decisions are complicated as we all know. But all societies have looked on murder within their own society as wrong, unless there was some specific reason to justify it (and the need to ‘justify’ it illustrates the fact). All men are aware that the interests of others must be taken into account in their strata of society.
They may limit those to whom they owe that responsibility by taking a ‘view’ of those outside the sphere of their own circles which writes them off as not quite human, or by not thinking of it at all, but once they are faced up to the question (and sadly how rarely that happens) they will generally accept that their position is not justifiable, or take an irrational viewpoint so that they can continue to hold their position and still feel morally justified. How often such men have used the false argument of ‘the will of God’ to justify their position. But why did they want to justify their position in the first place? Because they were trying to pacify their consciences. (We must not blame God for this. He has ordained that men be free to make their own choices. He cannot be blamed because they misuse that ability, unless of course we want Him to take our freewills away as well).
History is full of examples where men and women have acted honourably in a way that was against their best interests simply because of what they believed was ‘right’ (and illogically some of them have been atheists, which demonstrates how their moral goodness can triumph against their very beliefs).
This was why Kant argued that the fact that men were aware that there was often something that they ‘ought to do’, even though it could not be demonstrated rationally, demonstrated that there must be a law-giver. Why else should they be bound by the moral ‘ought’?
Conscience is often an inconvenience but few men can avoid it all the time (and it is not very pleasant to meet people like that, - even if they exist, and that is questionable). Even the vilest of men try to ‘justify’ themselves in order to soothe their consciences.
But where did it come from? It does not encourage the survival of the fittest, it is often very inconvenient, and many have died because they held fast to it. There is no sensible natural explanation of it. The animal world gets on well enough without it. Yet even when we try to get away from it, it hunts us down in the end. There is absolutely no reason why it should have arisen through ‘evolution’ (except by accident,and if that is true why should we not try to get rid of it when it can hinder our general well-being?).
The only really logical position, if we are going to maintain that it is a ‘good thing’, is to accept that it was instilled into us in some way by a moral governor, one who had the interests of goodness at heart. We may try to rationalise the position because we do not want to believe this, by all kinds of dodges of the intellect, but underneath morality has us in its grip and we find that we cannot escape it absolutely. It just is not possible to be someone who only argues things on the basis of rational thought, thus escaping conscience. It may work some of the time, but like Bertrand Russell we must in the end admit that it goes further than that. That in fact conscience, and right and wrong, are in some way above reason. And that can only lead us back to God.
It may be that someone will say, ‘what about the evils brought into the world by religion?’, and I would agree with you, but that tells us more about the men who do such things than about God. I will happily guarantee you one thing. You will never be able to show me anyone who has brought misery and suffering into the world by a sensible following of the teachings of Jesus Christ. And if you immediately bristle in disagreement, please be kind enough to Email me and tell me WHICH TEACHING OF JESUS CHRIST THEY WERE FOLLOWING.
(I am not talking about the teaching of churches. That is another matter. True Christianity is obeying the teaching of Jesus Christ. That is what I stand by, and that is, if you are fair and reasonable, what you must consider when passing your judgment on Jesus. Do not blame Him because people misuse and twist things, and use His reputation to try to justify their own wrongdoing).