Having explored how human morality — ideas and feelings of right and wrong — does not need a god to explain it, instead being the product of our evolutionary history and our unique societies, it is time to address a common criticism of godless morality.
It goes something like this: If morality is purely subjective, if right and wrong do not exist “beyond” or “outside” what humans determine they should be (in other words, are not set by a god), how can one justify telling someone else she has behaved in an immoral way? If a man says rape or murder is morally right, how can another justify saying he is wrong? With no empirical standard of what is ethical, ethics are simply opinions, and why would one human’s opinion have more weight or importance than another’s? Relative morality is meaningless morality.
We can first deal with the obvious point that even if a god-decreed empirical standard exists there is no way for us to know precisely what it is. We’d have to first prove (prove) which god is real and which gods are fictional, then get clarification directly from this being on issues not specifically mentioned in its holy text. So the same question of how one justifies telling another she is wrong haunts the theory of Objective Morality as well. Scriptures are often vague, open to interpretation, so even among those who believe in Objective Morality, and the same God, morals inevitably vary. Conservative and liberal Christians may have different views on right and wrong — on what God’s standards are — based on the exact same holy book! Some Christians firmly believe contraception is a sin. Others disagree. There are debates over what God really thinks about premarital sex and sex acts, masturbation, alcohol, and drugs, as well as issues ancient writers couldn’t imagine, from gun control to genetic engineering or cloning. While the range of acceptable ethical standards may be more narrow when everyone agrees that Yahweh set Objective Moral laws, individual morals are still very much opinion-based, a matter of human perspective, because such laws are often not comprehensive, clear, or even present in the scriptures.
More importantly, the common criticism is an incomplete thought, failing to comprehend the premise.
The premise is indeed that morality is opinion-based. Though rooted in evolution, the society and family one happens to be born into, life experiences, psychological states, and so on, right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion. The answer to this question (“If morals are human opinions, how can one justify condemning another person’s actions?”) is then obvious: no justification is needed at all. Opinions do not need this kind of justification.
Suppose I were to ask, “What is your favorite color?” and then demanded you justify it using an empirical standard, a standard beyond yourself, beyond humanity — beyond human opinion. The very idea is absurd. The concept of a “favorite color” does not exist in any form beyond our individual selves (do you think that it too was decided by God for us humans to follow?). What sense does it make to demand that the person who expresses a favorite color also “backs it up” using some mythological benchmark not set by humans? Opinions of the prettiest color rest on their own laurels — the subjective standards of man, not the objective ones of a deity.
In the precise same way, no external justification is needed to say, “What the rapist did was wrong, even if he didn’t think so.” If one states that another person behaved in an immoral way, that is a subjective viewpoint like one’s favorite color; there is no requirement that one justifies saying so using anything other than human thought and reason. Opinions, moral or otherwise, do not need to be measured or validated against standards “beyond” or “outside” humanity.
The religious may believe these things are different, because naturally an Objective Favorite Color does not exist but an Objective Morality does. That’s as impossible to prove as the deity it’s based on, but think that if you wish. Regardless, the statement “You have to justify judging others if you don’t believe in an empirical standard” makes no sense. It’s specifically because one doesn’t believe an empirical standard exists that one doesn’t need to justify judging others! If you don’t believe in an Objective Favorite Color, you do not have to justify your favorite color using that standard. If you don’t believe in Objective Morality, you do not have to justify why you think someone did something immoral using that standard. You can stick to human standards — both individual and collective, which you can use to justify your beliefs (for example, my morality — and that of many others — emphasizes minimizing physical and psychological harm, therefore rape is wrong, therefore the rapist has done wrong).
So if no justification is needed to state your opinion that a murderer has done wrong, if the very act of asking for justification is illogical because it ignores the obvious implication of the premise, what of the rest of the common criticism? If it’s all opinion, doesn’t one have to say all opinions are equal, if we look at things objectively? Any notion that Opinion A has more weight or importance than Opinion B is bunk. Is morality then meaningless?
It is true, if we view all this objectively, that Opinion A and Opinion B, whatever they may be, are indeed “equal,” “equally valid or important,” or however else you’d like to phrase it. How else could it be? If there is no deity, no Final Say, to give the thumbs up or down to moral opinions, that is simply reality. (Without an Objective Favorite Color, “My favorite is blue” and “My favorite is green” are both valid.) Now, this generally makes us uncomfortable or sick because it means that though I think the opinions and ethics of the child molester are detestable and inferior to my own there is no deity to say I am right and he is wrong, so our opinions are equally valid. But that’s not the end to the story, because while opinions are equal their real-world consequences are not.
Some moral views lead to death, physical and psychological pain, misery, terror, and so on. Others do not, or have opposite effects. These are real experiences. So while mere opinions, in and of themselves, can be said to be “equal,” we cannot say the same regarding their actual or possible effects. Some moral views are more physically and psychologically harmful than others. This is quite different than favorite colors.
See, the common criticism has it backwards. A lack of an empirical standard makes opinions meaningful, not meaningless. It’s where an empirical standard exists that opinions don’t matter. Consider an actual empirical standard: the truth (yes, atheists and liberals believe in absolute truth). Either George Washington existed or he didn’t. I say he did, another says he didn’t…one of us is incorrect. When it comes to the truth, opinions don’t matter. The objective truth is independent of our opinion. Morality is different: it is not independent of our opinions (it’s opinion-based, after all), and thus our moral views matter a great deal because some will cause more harm than others. If God exists and determined that killing a girl found to not be a virgin on her wedding night was right, your opinion about killing non-virgin girls on their wedding nights would be meaningless. It wouldn’t matter if you thought this wrong — you’d be incorrect. But if there is no deity-designed standard “beyond” humanity, your opinion is meaningful and matters a great deal because awful real-world consequences can be avoided if your moral opinion is heard and embraced.
“Well, so what?” one might ask. “Why is harm itself wrong? Who says we should consider death and pain ‘wrong’ rather than, say, life and happiness?”
The person who asks this has lost sight of linguistic meaning. What exactly does “wrong” (or “bad” or “evil” or “immoral”) mean? Well, it essentially means undesirable. To say something is wrong is to say it’s disagreeable, intolerable, unacceptable, something that should not be done, something to be avoided.
Why is harm wrong? Harm is wrong because it’s undesirable. To put it another way, asking “Why is harm wrong?” is really asking “Why is harm undesirable?” And the answer is “Because it hurts” — because we are conscious, organic creatures capable of experiencing death, pain, humiliation, grief, and so on. Now, this does not mean everyone will agree on what constitutes harm! That is the human story, after all: a vicious battle of opinions on what is harmful and what isn’t (and thus what’s wrong and what isn’t), with some ideas growing popular even while change awaits on the horizon. We even argue over whether causing harm to prevent a greater harm is right (desirable), as with killing one to save many or going to war to stop the evils of others. But the idea that harm is undesirable is universal, because each human creature has something they would not like to happen to them.
This includes those who bring pain and suffering to others or themselves. The rapist may not wish to be raped; the mullah who supports female genital mutilation may not wish to be castrated; the suicidal person may not wish to be tortured in a basement first; the masochist, who enjoys experiencing pain, may not wish to die; the serial killer may not wish to be left at the altar; the sadist, who loves inflicting pain, may not wish to be paralyzed from the neck down.
As soon as you accept the premise that each person has some form of harm he or she wants to avoid, you’ve accepted that harm is wrong — by definition. Even if our views on what is harmful (or how harmful something is) vary widely, we have a shared foundation built on the actual meanings of the terms we’re using. From this starting point, folk from all sides of an issue present their arguments (for instance, “It is wrong — undesirable — for a starving man to steal because that harms the property owner” vs. “It is right — desirable — for a starving man to steal because if he doesn’t he will die”). Though we individuals do not always do so, we often decide that what’s wrong (undesirable) for us is also wrong for others, because we evolved a capacity for empathy and are often smart enough to know a group living under rules that apply to all can actually protect and benefit us by creating a more stable, cooperative, caring society). The disagreements may be savage, but an important premise of harm being wrong because it’s undesirable is universally accepted. Things couldn’t be any other way unless you simply wanted to throw out the meaning of words.
The path forward from there is clear, despite the insistence of some that actions need external justification even if moral opinions do not. This is merely another go at an obviously flawed idea. If no external, objective standard is needed to justify moral views, why would you need one to justify actions based on those moral views? You wouldn’t. We justify our actions based on the subjective, human ideas that are our moral views, and then try to popularize our ideas because we think we know best. It’s simply what human creatures do, whether our ideas are in the minority or majority opinion, whether they lead to death and pain or peace and kindness.
Understandably, some may see no sense in individuals objecting to or regulating the ethics of others. If there’s no higher basis for whose idea of morality is true or better, the next question is oftentimes “How is it then logical to tell someone they’re wrong and force them to live by your moral code?” In a word, self-interest. If you think your morality is better, it’s not an illogical decision to try to convince someone else or even force him to abide by it through law. Even if you know there is no external basis to make your morality objectively “better” or “truer,” it’s still a reasonable action for you to take because you see it as better or truer, and know your efforts can work — minds get changed, so do laws, so do societies. For example, I know there’s no external, objective basis for police murder being wrong, but because I personally think it is, I act. I try to change minds, support law changes. The act is a logical step after opinion formation. If I act, I may help win a world I want, one with fewer senseless killings of unarmed people. If you would prefer a world with your moral code adopted, and know acting can bring that about, it almost seems more logical to act than to not act — even if you know all moral views are equivalent — to bring about that different world! “Logical” just means “makes sense,” after all. So each individual tries to shape the world in a certain way they personally like — a rational thing to do, given individual motives, even while knowing no one is “right.” Acting in self-interest is rarely considered irrational.