The source of morale

In The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics - Without God, how can you be moral?, by Frederick Edwords, there is a part called The source of morality, which I think is very good, and want to share with all of you.

The Source Of Morality

But does this completely solve the problem posed by the theist? No, it does not. For the question can still be raised as to how it is possible for human beings to behave morally, agree on moral rules and laws, and generally cooperate with each other in the absence of any divine impetus in this direction. After all, haven't modern philosophers, in particular analytical philosophers, argued that moral statements are basically emotional utterances without a rational base? And haven't they split "is" irrevocably from "ought" so that no foundation is even possible? In the light of this, how is it that human beings manage to agree, often from culture to culture, on a variety of moral and legal principles? And, of more interest, how is it possible for legal and moral systems to improve over the centuries in the absence of the very rational or theological footing that modern philosophers have so effectively taken away? Without some basis, some objective criteria, it isn't possible to choose a good moral system over a bad one. If both are equally emotive and irrational, they are both equally arbitrary -- making any selection between them only a product of accidental leanings or willful whim. No choice could be rationally defended.

And yet, seemingly in spite of this problem, human beings do develop moral and legal systems on their own and later make improvements on them. What is the explanation? From whence do moral values come?

Let's imagine for a moment that we have the earth, lifeless and dead, floating in a lifeless and dead universe. There are only mountains, rocks, gullies, winds, and rain, but no one anywhere to make judgements as to good and evil. In such a world would good and evil exist? Would it make any moral difference if a rock rolled down a hill or if it didn't? Richard Taylor in his book, Good and Evil, has argued effectively that a "distinction between good and evil could not even theoretically be drawn in a world that we imagined to be devoid of all life."

Now, following Taylor, let's add some beings to this planet. However, let us make them perfectly rational and devoid of all emotion, totally free of all purposes, needs, or desires. Like computers, they simply register what is going on, but they make no moves to ensure their own survival or avoid their own destruction. Do good and evil exist now? Again, there is no theoretical way in which they can. These beings don't care what goes on; they merely observe. And thus they have no rationale for declaring a thing good or evil. Nothing matters to them and, since they are the only beings in the universe, nothing matters at all.

Enter Adam. Adam is a man who is fully human. He has deficiencies, and hence needs. He has longings and desires. He can experience pain and pleasure and often avoids the former and seeks the latter. Things matter to him. He can ask of a given thing, "Is this for me or against me?" and come to some determination.

At this point, and only at this point, do good and evil appear. Furthermore, as Taylor argues, "the judgements of this solitary being concerning good and evil are as ABSOLUTE as any judgement can be. Such a being is, indeed, the measure of all things: of good things as good and of bad things as bad. . . . No distinction can be made, in terms of this being, between what is merely good for HIM and what is good ABSOLUTELY; there is no higher standard of goodness. For what could it be?" Apart from Adam's wants and needs, there is only that dead universe. And, without him, good and evil could not exist.

Now let's bring another being into the picture, a being who, though having many needs and interests in common with Adam, has some that differ slightly. We will call her Eve. Interesting things begin to happen at this point. For, on the one hand, we have two people with similar aims who are capable of working together for a common cause. On the other hand, we have two people who need to compromise with each other in order that each will be able to satisfy the other's unique desires. And so a complex interpersonal relationship develops, and rules are established to maximize mutual satisfaction and to minimize the effects of evil. With rules, we now have right and wrong. And from this basic recognition of the need for cooperation ultimately come laws and ethics.

But now let us suppose that these two people come to a fierce disagreement over the best way to perform a desired action. The two argue and seem to get nowhere. And then Adam pulls his trump card. He says to Eve, "Wait a minute. Aren't we forgetting about God?" And to this Eve replies, "Who?" Adam now has his opening and proceeds to go into a long explanation about how all moral values would be arbitrary if it weren't for God; how God was the one who made good things good and bad things bad; and how our knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral must be based on the absolute moral standards established in heaven. Well, this is all new to Eve, and so she asks Adam, who seems to know so much about it, to provide a little more detail on these absolute standards. And so Adam goes into another long explanation about the laws of God and God's punishments for disobedience, until he arrives at the issue which started the whole discussion in the first place. And thereupon Adam concludes, "And so you see, Eve, God says to do it MY way!" Such is the manner in which appeals to divine absolutes settle moral and other disputes between people.


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