morality, reason, religion

Pondering… Morality

The Thinker, bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin. Photo by “Karora,” taken 13 August 2007, released to the public domain. Retrieved from wikimedia commons.

It’s been an odd week so far. Crazy, yet sympathetic, tin-foil hat person on Monday, disturbing dream on Tuesday that kept distracting me, and today… well, today was contemplative. Contemplative is, for me, decidedly in the “good day” category, but that doesn’t make the day a simple one.

Anyway, got to the end of the day and got into a fun conversation with someone. Started off as politics, then migrated to the topic of groups which feel entitled to act against other groups (in this case, we were talking about radical environmental groups who sue the government to enforce their ideals of what use public lands should be put to), and that eventually got us on the topic of religious law versus social or formal law.

Though we never really talked about it in so many words, a good deal of our conversation centered on the concept of objective versus subjective morality. Oddly enough, he from a religious perspective argued the subjective side, while I from the atheistic perspective argued the objective morality side. Stereotypically, that set-up is reversed with the believer arguing for the existence of an objective (god-given) morality and the atheist arguing for a subjective (culturally-based/situationally-based) morality.

It was a very stimulating conversation, however, like so many of the sort, amounted to little more than running on the mental treadmill; energizing and works some muscles, but doesn’t get you anywhere.

It also got me to thinking about another, similar conversation I had with a friend a few weeks back. As some background, we are both atheists, though he is both more vocal about his atheistic perspectives and is decidedly more anti-theist than I. We were directly discussing objective versus subjective morality. That conversation threw me for a loop because my friend posed to me two very good questions.

Firstly, he asked why what I think is the objective morality (side note: I don’t think I know what it is, I just think it exists) is not simply another subjective morality. This is a well-duh question, but a good one, probably because it is so basic. I have no answer (good or otherwise) yet for that, though I also don’t know if an answer to that sort of question is possible. It goes back to what I called “the lens problem” when I was studying philosophy in undergrad.

Roughly speaking, “the lens problem” is that we are always “viewing” (or knowing, or experiencing, or touching, etc) the world and its concepts through specific “lenses.” These “lenses” are things like our past experiences, our knowledge on the topic, our biological limitations, our cultural prejudices and norms, our social expectations, our world view and so on. We can actively try to strip away these “lenses” or compensate for them so that we are “seeing” the world more directly, but it is impossible to take away all “lenses” even if most of them can be removed. To continue the visual sight metaphor, even if all artificial lenses are stripped away, there is still the eye taking in information via reflected light being translated by the brain… all necessary for sight, yet all very fallible, limited vehicles.

Just keep running, running, running... (Generic GIF found on Google. No original source found. If it's yours, lemme know.)
Just keep running, running, running… (Generic GIF found on Google. No original source found. If it’s yours, lemme know.)

But the other question he asked came after we had discussed what non-deity-derived objective morality would look like, assuming it exists. I told him about the ancient philosophers and some of their works/writings on what “The Good” is as an example of some possible answers to what is or might be objectively good. Or at least some old respected thinkers’ opinions on the matter. He then played devil’s advocate on me, asking what would be objectively evil.

And here is where my studies failed me and my curiosity had not yet gone. Objective morality suggests both objectively good and objectively evil… right? (I’m assuming yes at this point, though that could be a flawed paradigm.) I’ve encountered some works on what “The Good” is, but never “The Evil.” That is something that will require more pondering…

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