Ultimate Morality (Or, Directions From East Orange To Hoboken)

Ok, so I’ve seen, one time too many, a flock of commenters congratulating a christian writer who pointed out that atheism must necessarily lead to nihilism, that atheists cannot have any morality whatsoever because in an atheist universe it would ultimately be meaningless.

The ultimately is key; it is the word that allows them to stroke their chins and nod sagely. “God says X, which makes it ultimately true.” The question of which god says it never arises, cos there’s only one in their universe, and they happened to get lucky and believe in that one. The question of human interpretation of that ultimate truth never arises, because their interpretation is the right one. They can’t see that they are in the same position an atheist is in, except that they have convinced themselves that the human choices they made are based on an ultimate truth.

Thing is, I’m really not looking for an ultimate truth, or an ultimate morality. I’m looking for something a bit closer to home. Something that applies to my life, and to the lives of my fellow human beings. Something that is meaningful to us, even if it is ultimately meaningless. An analogy: The fact that we are no longer considered to be the center of God’s universe, and that there is no absolute up or down, no absolute substrate against which to measure motion, no way of measuring speed or direction without some arbitrary relation to an observer… does not mean that it is impossible to give directions from East Orange to Hoboken. Directions are meaningful when relative. So is morality.

An ultimately true morality that does not care about humanity might allow some monster to believe that, say, killing children is a kindness, cos it sends them to heaven. Me, I like children. If God says “kill these children”, then God is wrong. And if God is ultimately right about that, fuck God, I’d rather be wrong.

The thing is, we can only judge whether our decisions have been good or bad through hindsight. Oddly enough, the same goes for morality–the moral codes that have worked, get to call themselves “good”; the ones that have not aren’t here to call themselves anything. So being kind to one another, saving for tough times, hard work, and so on, are things which our environment has selected as “good”. If religion disappeared tomorrow, our environment would still be selecting some behaviors over others. Morality matters, not because of ultimate decisions from some god, but precisely because of proximal usefulness. Directions from East Orange to Hoboken are not useful when phrased in terms of vectors relative to the big bang.


  1. Randomfactor says

    It’s not like the Christians’ “ultimately” isn’t relative too. It’s relative to the changing whims of their deity–who at one time was intensely interested in humans’ diet and sex habits, and now concentrates mostly on the latter. He no longer cares what you do with the pig so long as it’s not sex.

    If their god laid down rules tomorrow that no longer focused on harmless sex practices and instead severely penalized certain hairstyles, or mandated homosexuality, presumably they’d all change overnight.

  2. GentleJim says

    Isn’t ultimate morality an action that “ultimately” leads to an earth in balance? For isn’t that all that we, as humans, could possibly impact? If a god professes a path that leads to over-population, intolerance and wars, does that lead to a balanced peaceful earth? If you can go to “heaven” without working towards this objective, is it a “heaven” that you would want to go to?

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