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Discussing Morality

By Apostate Paul ~

"So, you're an atheist now."

Morality (Photo credit: dietmut)
One of my buddies asked me this one idle evening after work. A few weeks prior, I had sent out a letter to all of my Christian friends informing them that, while I still respected them and wanted to maintain my relationship with them, I no longer thought that Christianity held any water, and I wouldn't be pursuing it anymore. I would still be the same goofy, Ultimate Frisbee-obsessed guy trying to live a virtuous life, just without the religious parts.

"Yes," I said, laughing. "Why?"

He smiled and said, "We've never mentioned it in person. You said a while back that you were always happy to discuss it with me. So do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Sure, what's up?" I said, wondering what I was about to get into.

"Well, you said that you were planning to continue living a 'virtuous life' even though you stopped believing. So... what standard do you adhere to when judging whether or not something is objectively good?"

Ah. I immediately recalled the string of C. S. Lewis quotes I had seen this very friend posting over the past two or three weeks. I was about to get a dose of the first three chapters of Mere Christianity, wasn't I?

"Actually," I said after a moment of thought, "that aspect of my life didn't change much when I left Christianity. I still operate on the same basic question I did before -- does it help and not harm? If the answer to that question is no, then I consider it evil. If it's yes, I consider it good."

He looked unsatisfied with my answer. It was clear that he was looking for something different.

"Well, I'm glad that you have a definition for it, but how did morality get that definition? I mean, if you just gave it that definition, couldn't someone else just give it a different one? And then before you know it, we could say the Holocaust was a good thing. It can't just be a feeling that someone made up or it has no objective basis."

There it was. After a few seconds and the realization that my next statement would effectively kill the discussion, I prepared to say that I didn't really believe in an objective form of morality. I thought it was subjective by nature, just like all other standards.

But then, something popped into my head. Objective morality? God? Wait a minute...

"Well, like all words," I said, "we humans made up the definition for morality. Just like we made up the word for all the other words we use in order to communicate with each other. But the subjectivity of a word doesn't really have to do with the objectivity of what it's referring to. The word apple means a red piece of fruit, and the word is made up by us, but the fruit isn't. So, some guy made up the definition, but not necessarily the concept to which it refers."

About half way through my long spiel, he got that look on his face where he wanted to move on to his next question, but he waited patiently for me to finish, and paused an appropriate amount of time before voicing his question, trying not to look like he had ignored the last half of my statement.

"Right, I get you. It's like the color green. We use the word 'green' to describe a certain wavelength of light, and we could change the word but it wouldn't change the color, just how we describe it. Or like a chair. We use the word 'chair' to describe a thing we can sit on, so if we used a different word like 'bleg' but still were describing a thing we can sit on, it wouldn't affect the essence of the chair even though the word's meaning may have changed. The essence of the object that makes it what it is has not changed."

"Exactly." I said, quite glad he had understood.

"Ok, I agree with you. So... where do you think morality gets its essence from?"

We still weren't quite there. "Well, if morality is objective, or exists outside of any particular perspective, then the origin of morality is probably the same origin as all the other abstract realities in the universe. And I have no idea what that is. Where did the universe come from? We atheists just have random guesses at best."

"Oh." He sat for a minute, and then continued. "I am asking what made the moral standards. Because all standards need a maker. I believe that God made the standards. But I don't understand where your standards come from. They can't just come from nowhere."

Sure enough. This was straight from C. S. Lewis' book. After a moment, I asked him a question.

"May I ask what YOU believe? I mean, I assume from the way you worded your questions, you believe in an objective form of morality?"

"Yeah, of course."

"Objective meaning that morality exists outside of any particular perspective?"

"Um... Yeah, pretty much."

"Well," I said slowly, "I don't mean to attack your beliefs here, but your questions make me think that you don't actually believe in an objective morality. That last question sort of sealed the deal, unless I misunderstood you. Here's how I understand it: If morality is objective, it doesn't have to have a maker any more than anything else requires a maker. In fact, if some perspective is required to make sense of something, like a standard, then it's not objective, it's based on that perspective. So if you feel like God is required for morality to be universal, perhaps you believe morality is inherently subjective. If you really believe that morality is objective, you wouldn't need a perspective to make it,, would you?"

He sat still for a few minutes, thinking. "I hadn't thought about it that way. Hmm. I feel like I'm missing something because I do believe in objective morality. But I also believe that God is necessary."

He glanced at his watch. "Oh, it's getting late. I need to head out soon. We'll continue this discussion next time, okay? Thanks for answering my questions, bro."

"Any time, man." As he grabbed his keys off of the coffee table, I posed one final question.

"Have you ever read about Euthyphro's Dilemma?"

"Nope. What's that?"

"It's Plato's version of what I was trying to say. You should check it out some time."

"Alright," he said. "I'll take a look."

So the next time a Christian decides to tell you about how they believe in objective morality to evangelize you, let him or her know how glad you are that he or she doesn't believe God is necessary for a universal set of morals either.