The study of morality would vastly be improved
If god could be removed
Without the false assumption that a culture’s moral laws
Had supernatural cause
There’s no Platonic heaven where morality is found
But rather, look around!
Morality will not be seen expressed as an ideal
Morality… is real
So, yeah… I guess this one is based on a report of a debate or disagreement or something, between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, on the topic of morality—or rather, on “objective moral values”. Interesting, or tedious, or whatever. Craig wants morality to be based on God’s revelation, Harris will find it in our brains, our DNA, or some such.
Of course, they are both wrong.
Both want universals, though of a different sort. It’s as if “universal morality” is the all-or-nothing position—and it is certainly the case that (some, at least) theists will pounce on any sort of non-universality as taking the “anything goes” position. But the fact that these theists frame the question that way is no excuse for looking for an atheist equivalent, when none is required. And indeed, the site reporting the argument appears also to be looking for a universal morality:
Gravity is not dependent upon our worldview. And if objective moral values exist, neither should they.
At any rate, Harris argues that something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures. Craig counters by saying something is morally good if God says it is. With Craig, we are back to the question of which god. As for Harris, I tend to agree with him, but even he has to admit his starting point is wholly arbitrary self-interested.
But why should objective moral values be universal? Let us suppose our needs are universal (even “promotion of the flourishing of conscious creatures”, though I don’t honestly think that’s it)—our environments are much varied, and the ways our needs may be filled are necessarily dependent on our varied environments. And morality is (when you look at what it is and does, rather than what is claimed) a means of controlling behavior, promoting some things and prohibiting others, independently of any sort of governmental law. From here (Hocutt, 2010, an excellent analysis of morality):
What, then, is morality? Protagoras, the greatest of the Greek sophists, got the answer right when he argued that morality is social practices. Morality in the real world consists not of a priori principles but of customs and conventions, tacit understandings about what conduct will be accepted and what will not. Members of diverse groups, we human beings are each of us subject to rules made by our group for our group, so applicable to our group and no other. These rules, some more important than others, are not written down anywhere and, being ad hoc adjustments to contingent circumstances, are always unsystematic and ill defined; furthermore, they are subject to change. They exist, however, in the form of more or less regular practices reinforced by more or less effective sanctions.
Looking for universals in a varied environment is a fool’s errand (which is every bit a strike against those who claim a genetic morality as against those who claim to speak for a god—in both cases, the incontrovertible fact of differing moral standards across cultures speaks against any sort of universal morality).
Because of the contingency and fallibility of these rules, we cannot discover them by thought alone or by using the test of utility. Instead, we learn our moralities by being rewarded for complying with them and punished for contravening them—methods that teach us to feel good when we ―do the right thing, guilty when we do not. Furthermore, our duty to obey these rules has nothing to do with culturally transcendent standards. Duty consists entirely in the fact that obedience to the rules is a condition of good standing in the group. We human beings are certainly rational animals, but we are even more fundamentally tribal animals; and while prudence is a dictate of reason, morality is largely tribal instinct and group custom. We are bound to it in the first analysis by a genetically based need for the approval of our fellows and in the final analysis by their coercion to behave as they desire—not, as Kant erroneously claimed, by choice of an undetermined will. In fact, as even the intellectually honest Kant admitted in the end, the idea of such a will is unintelligible.
Morality is, fundamentally, about human behavior. And the thing is, we have sciences dedicated to looking at that.
The obvious conclusion is that moral philosophy ought to begin with empirical psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Of course, these behavioral sciences won’t tell us what moralities we ought to have, but unlike gaseous talk of archetypal Justice and theological talk of moral law, they will tell us something about the moralities that we do have and perhaps enable us to understand why we have them, which might enable us to figure out how to improve them. Once we understand the uses and deficiencies of these moralities, we might be able to see how their purposes could be served more effectively.
So, is there an objective basis to morality, or is it all just made up? There is no moral god, there is no moral gene—there is, however, the real world, which varies across time and space. The good news… once we recognize and admit the reality of morality, it becomes something we can improve. The bad news… the (for now) majority currently views morality as handed down by a god some thousands of years ago, and that any change is, by definition, detrimental to morality.