One topic I frequently discuss with theists is the question about morality. “The objection to Atheism is often along the lines of the following: “If there is no God, how can you then say that anything is wrong? It’s just your opinion!”

And I wanna say right of the bat: You’re right about the last part. It is just opinion. So what?

I define the terms right and wrong in the following way: Right is whatever maximizes human well being (and to an extend the well being of animals) and wrong is whatever minimizes/diminishes it.

This definition of morality is one, that I would say is pretty much representative of most people. Most people value human well being and want to maximize it.

I also often get hit with the example of the “raping murdering materialist” and how I can say that he’s objectively wrong.

It of course depends what you mean by objectively wrong. Words in general get defined by consensus. Typical example is the word “gift”: If you say in America “I have a gift for you” most people would be excited. If you talk about “gift” in Germany most people would run away, because gift means poison in the german language.

As I said my definition is a pretty good aproximation of the consensus. But of course it’s about absolutes: Is it absolutely wrong to rape and kill other people.

In my worldview the way the theist defines his words I’d say No.

But what do you gain by being able to say murder and rape is absolutely wrong. The answer in my opinion is: Nothing.

If the theist encounters the raping murdering materialist, he can proclaim that what he does is absolutely wrong. Will the materialist stop raping and murdering after this declaration? No.

The theist can only appeal to God as an absolute standard. But it doesn’t matter because the vast majority of people don’t believe in his God. If the theist tells the materialist: “Murder is wrong, because according to God’s absolute moral standard you should never kill.” the materialist or the Muslim extermist or any other person who doesn’t subscribe to his beliefs can simply shrug it off and say he doesn’t care about his God’s absolute moral standard. At that point you’re stuck, when it comes to persuading other people of different faiths and you’re stuck, because you’re not open to dialogue about these moral absolutes either.

In the end all the theist has gained is 2 terms (who theists of different faiths may or may not agree with): “absolutely right” and “absolutely wrong”.

Now as I said if one subscribes to eternal, unchanging, absolutes as given to us by our Creator, then morality is not up for debate. Something is absolutely right/absolutely wrong because an absolute God’s standard dictates it is such.

But as far as the materialist is concerned I can at least make an argument that might persuade him. I can show him, that his behavior won’t lead to human well being and that being a rapist/ murderer will most likely lead to consequences that will diminish his well being and that he should therefore not desire. It will lead to him being ostracized from society, it might lead to him living in poverty in some cases it might lead to him being killed.

At that point he can either agree with me that he should stop it if he wants to avoid those consequences, he can continue at the risk of those consequences at which point I’ve hit philosophical bed rock with him and we as a society will have to stop him if we can, or worst of all if he simply doesn’t care about his own well being or that of others at which point the result is the same.

The bottom line in my opinion is this: Moral absolutes are a conversation stopper and are only good for one thing: Making the theist feel secure in his morality (doesn’t of course go for all theists).

Goodbye from yours truly,

Rene von Boenninghausen @Renevelation

2 thoughts on “Moral Absolutes: Why it’s meaningless

  1. I agree with you that morality is about what benefits versus what harms people. To me this suggests that, to the degree that we can objectively know what is good for us and what is harmful, we can also objectively say that this or that action is objectively right or wrong.

    I also agree about absolute principles. The problem with principles is that they are made intentionally short, so they can to be remembered. But they are too short to cover all the exceptions. For example, it is morally better to lie to the Nazis at the door rather than have the Jewish family in the attic captured and killed.

    Moral judgment compares two rules or two actions, and says that one is better or worse than the other according to their long-term outcomes at producing good or reducing harm.


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