Morality Without God?

Morality Without God?I just read a nice little book, Morality Without God? by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Ostensibly, he argues that we don’t need God to have an absolute moral code. But more important, he argues against divine command morality. This is the idea that morality comes from something like the Ten Commandments. It is only wrong to murder because God told us not to. See: it’s right there in the book! Sinnott-Armstrong argues that without having an independent (or intuitive) idea of morality, there would be no way to know that the Ten Commandments were really God’s rules and not, say, Satan’s.

Consider the serial killer Albert Fish. According to Wikipedia, “Fish, suffering from religious psychosis, felt that God was commanding him to torture and sexually mutilate children.” How are we he to know that it wasn’t God telling him that? Most Christians would say that they just know that kind of thing is wrong. And that pretty much proves the point. As far as I know, there is no specific admonition in the Bible against torturing and sexually mutilating children. But I wanted to know.

So I set out to find if the Bible mentioned that it was wrong to have sex with dead bodies. I went over to Yahoo! Answers and found a page that seemed appropriate, Does the Bible Prohibit Necrophilia? Here is the whole question:

The Bible does not mention necrophilia but it does condemn sex outside of marriage, so if a man’s wife dies and he wants to have sex with her one more time before she is buried, would he be sinning?

As usual on such pages, the answers were not very helpful. Most of them were like fifimsp3’s answer, “Uh, even if the Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong, your mind should. If it doesn’t, go see a therapist.” That doesn’t really answer the question. In fact, it seems to imply that person asking the question wants to do this. It doesn’t sound like that to me. It sounds to me like he thinks he’s found an interesting loophole in the Bible. Whatever.

The best answers noted that the Bible does say you can’t have sex out of wedlock. Also: marriage only lasts until death. So having sex in this way would violent the Bible. Fair enough. But it would not be a sin for the reasons that most of us find it objectionable. It would just be wrong for the same reasons as masturbation. That’s some weak tea there!

What this all shows is that you really can’t depend upon a set of rules for your morality. You have to depend upon a system of ideas. There are always going to be questions that are not dealt with in the rules. Just look at the Ten Commandments. There are lots of immoral acts that are not dealt with in that document. (There are also a lot of immoral acts that are implicitly condoned like slavery and female subjugation.)

Often, when I think about such ethical issues, I am struck by just how limited the thinking is of those who follow dogmatic religious systems. (Note: I have lots of religious friends but they aren’t fundamentalists, which is what I have problems with.) Isn’t it obvious that everyone knew that murder was wrong before the Ten Commandments and that was why murder was included on the list? Isn’t it obvious that slavery was taken for granted in the Old Testament because it was socially acceptable at that time? Isn’t it obvious that religions reflect their societies rather than define them? That’s why Christians don’t avoid shellfish and mixed fiber clothing! Believers take from the Bible what works for them in their time and place. There is nothing absolute or eternal about it.

And that gets to my fundamental problem with Morality Without God? I don’t accept that there is an absolute morality. I do accept Sinnott-Armstrong’s ethical system that is based upon harm and empathy. But I don’t think there is anything absolute or eternal about it. Hopefully, if the species survives long into the future, it will look back on us with the same horror that we now look back on the “Godly” slaveholders. There are loads of things we all do everyday that strike me as being morally repugnant. I will give you just one example: killing an annoying house fly.

What I do think is that the harm and empathy system for morality works very well for this time and place. It provides for a decent society with a fairly limited amount of pain for our fellow humans. But I very much hope that we will become better over time.


Check out Sinnott-Armstrong’s faculty page. It’s very funny!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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