April 9, 2007

CliffsNotes: The Morality Comment Thread (Part 1)

CliffsNotes: The Morality Comment Thread (Part 1)

The comment thread for our morality show has become a phenomenon in its own right. The show has been simmering in its own juices for nearly 20 months now — long enough for two human pregnancies and the full lifespan of a coral reef goby. That’s also long enough for an intimidatingly long comment thread to form, complete with intimidatingly long individual comments.

Now that the show is finally a week away, I am presenting a CliffsNotes version of the thread, so you can impress Nikos and Allison at cocktail parties without spending too much of your life reading through what has been written so far.

Consider this the first installment (the first inch of the thread on my scroll bar).

In Katherine’s original post she asked: is it possible to envision a world full of meaning and morality without God? Almost immediately, folks jumped to answer her with a direct “yes!”

Of course it is possible. Planet Earth does just fine — where God is nothing but a figment of man’s imagination. It is for man to create meaning and morality — we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We’ve invented God as a way of legitimizing whatever we want to do.

ChrisTover, in a comment to Open Source, August 18, 2005.

Morality can be derived from any number of other sources. I prefer biology. A strong “do unto others” can be derived from two conditions of humans. The first is that we, as individuals, require society to survive. We require at least the accumulated knowledge and, practically speaking, the accumulated wealth. The second condition, that I believe is unique to humans, is that the physically weaker members of our society have the capability of killing the stronger, through planning and/or technology.

BobH, in a comment to Open Source, August 19, 2005.

Then mmorse, who is great at steering the conversation in a productive and courteous direction, stepped in.

Wow, I appreciate the wide diversity of thought. I’m new to Open Source, so I submit the following humbly in spirit of this blog/show. Though I don’t like to label myself, I generally accept the term ‘Christian,’ in spite of all the baggage that goes with that.

At the forefront of my thoughts is that many times the morality and religion argument is an attempt at the proof of God. This, to me, is the wrong place to start. To answer the question up front. I believe that morality is the natural outflow of personhood, which ultimately finds its roots in God. We as persons can ‘discover’ a lot of morality by looking at other people, because they are made in the image of God. To keep it short, though I’d be happy to dialog on this further, in Genesis 9 ’shedding another’s blood is wrong because humanity is made in the image of God. In the book of James you should not bless God and curse man, who is made in the image of God. However, because morality at the root is related in what it means to be persons in relationship to one another and God, this doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that you can prove God because morality exists.

mmorse, in a comment to Open Source, August 19, 2005.

And Manning120 reminded us that morality could also come from human reason, rather than only from God or from pure evolutionary psychology.

Most of the writers have said things I generally agree with, but no one seems to have precisely made the point that morality comes from reason. That’s my belief…

If reason is the source of morality, then obviously morality comes from God only if reason does. Assuming God exists, with regard to a given moral principle, I would say God commands it because it’s right, as opposed to it being right because God commands it. So I have no problem with atheists being moral.

manning120, in a comment to Open Source, August 21, 2005.

We’re talking about God, and almost inevitably, things got contentious.

I don’t know. Some of us would rather die with white-knuckled fists full of nothing than open our hands and minds to something or Someone greater than ourselves.

think, in a comment to Open Source, August 26, 2005.

I find the last line of the previous post — “some of us would rather die with white-knuckled fists full of nothing than open our hands and minds …” — condescending and offensive. I did not grow up with religion and so have been free to figure out a lot of things on my own. I have a very highly developed moral sense — more so than so many so-called christians (um, Bush?!) — that just keeps developing as I get older.

BB, in a comment to Open Source, August 26, 2005.

And endoman wondered if these opposing viewpoints are so different after all.

Provided that by the term “God given” we convey a deterministic component to morality, then I would say that perhaps both possibilities of morality being God given and evolved are quite plausible and in some ways the same! If morality is, in Spike Lee’s terms, “Doing the Right Thing,” then many organisms, depending on their degree of socialization, do exactly that.

endoman, in a comment to Open Source, August 27, 2005.

TimW wrote that environmental ethics forces us to redefine traditional ways of thinking about morality.

The debates about whether or not ethics are “God Given” or human derived is thrown into sharp relief when it comes to environmental ethics. Environmental ethics asks simply: “As humans, how should we act in the ecosystem?” Or to phrase it in a slightly more extended form:

“As a participant species in an intricate and complex system, which we are only beginning to understand, how should we behave as responsible citizen-creatures in a system we did not create, we cannot control and we must not destroy?”

Environmental ethics challenges the validity of all existing ethical systems and forces us to reconsider all received wisdom from the ethical traditions of the past.

TimW, in a comment to Open Source, September 9, 2006.

And nother and flow finally brought up some of the better known systems of morality that are themselves non-God-dependent.

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”

John Stuart Mill

Mill goes on to write that this idea of utility extends to are tendency to promote “general happiness.” We tend to promote a general happiness in our society through a feeling of “duty” and a hope of pleasing. This idea reminded me of something Sartre wrote in “Existentialism and Human Emotions.”

“Existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

nother, in a comment to Open Source, October 3, 2005.

Consider Buddhism; an avowedly atheistic tradition established on the precept of moral behavior. An ancient and enduring tradition that predates Christianity (i.e. the teaching of Jesus the Nazarene) by several centuries.

flow, in a comment to Open Source, November 23, 2005.

For a while after this, the thread kicked around an interesting but (to my mind) increasingly tangential discussion about the nature of God, evolution, religion, and human existence. After a few months, Allison called everyone out.

Oh, I wish I had joined this thread earlier. What fun. I haven’t read through all the posts, as I don’t have the time. In the end here, though, it seems that the discussion has floundered in the land of “what are we?” and can we prove evolution. Perhaps, I missed it, but where is the discussion of morality in relation to all this.

Allison, in a comment to Open Source, February 12, 2006.

I think she’s right, and we had lost the discussion of of morality in the thread. In the next installment, we’ll see if we found it again.

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