Objective Morality without God
I grew up with the notion that such relative systems, could be extremely dangerous. Take, as an extreme, but not isolated case, at Nazi Germany. Once the assumption that Aryans were racially superior, and that Jews were a threat, was accepted, then persecution and genocide were not immoral. On the contrary, the Holocaust was a highly moral action - within the specific assumptions and relative thinking of the Nazis.
Objective Human Morality does exist, and is a beautifully elegant and eternal code. It is based on the simple and undeniable truth that the human race shares a single planet. Man does not live alone, but in community. While the principle sounds very simplistic, it has vast, sweeping consequences:
- Objective Morality is the law which governs how man can live together.
- Behaviors which will make it impossible for people to live together successfully are prohibited.
Or, as Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man”.
What are some of the consequences of this?
You may not murder someone else, regardless of what prejudices you hold.
You can not steal.
You can not enslave.
You can not cause physical harm.
You can not oppress.
You can do anything in the whole wide world which does not harm your fellow man.
Note that this is very different from the concept in the Bible of “Love thy neighbor as you yourself.” This concept works only in the abstract. If it were to be objectified in the same way as Hillel’s concept, everything would go haywire. You do not give your neighbor your food, your car, your tuition, your PIN number. Essentially, you don’t love your many neighbors as you love yourself. (If you are somewhat rational.) So, one can say that this is a metaphor for altruistic behavior, which is highly laudable. But is not a concrete moral concept.
One of the fallacies about objective morality is that it is a system of defining what the ‘ultimate good’ consists of. While that may be a nice thing to think about when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, it is completely different from and irrelevant to morality. Ultimate good, or ultimate purpose is a concept which is very individual, and just as people have different personalities and skills, and therefore have different jobs which they enjoy and excel at, they also have different paths to their own self-actualization. ("Life-Purpose without God" will have to wait for a future post.)
How do we know that the "Hillel" system of morality is, in fact objectively moral? Are we accepting the precepts of the Declaration of Independence "That all men are created equal"? No, although I certainly hope that such an idea stands on it's own merit. All that we are assuming is that for a person to have the expectation that he will maintain his basic rights, he must respect the rights of others. You can not lay claim to your own right to live if you kill others. You can not expect that your ownership of property will be protected unless you respect the right of your fellow man to own property. This has been called 'Reciprocal Morality', and perhaps that name fits, but whatever the name, the idea is based on the single basic fact of community.
Unfortunately, the existence of a moral system does not ensure moral conduct. The history of our world is filled with the story of the struggle of morality to emerge. People violate moral law, sometimes out of economic desperation, sometimes out of selfish aggression, often because of a notion which places their own humanity above that of others.
The story of the human race, from the beginnings of history up to the preset, is the story of the slow, imperfect, non-monotonic adoption of morality. To a great degree, the process mirrors the globalization of mankind. At the dawn of civilization, man could define their community of 'fellow men' only in very local terms. As transportation and communications gradually grew, that community grew to include regions, nations, countries, and, ultimately, the world.
But it is a story not only of geographic inclusion but of intellectual inclusion. Immoral behavior has been caused and justified by theories of exclusion. Ideas take hold which teach that a certain person or group is excluded from the 'fellow man' group, or even from the human race. They can be based on a theory of prejudice, they can be taught as 'God given' concepts, they can be motivated by selfish expedience, or by hatred. As our planet has evolved, many prejudices and fears have slowly been overcome. Tragically, many have not.
Objective human morality offers challenges. It does not obviate the need for examination of social ethics. Can you kill in self-defense, and how far can you take that concept? Can you impose restrictions which limit freedom in order to preserve security? (These same questions must be asked within the ‘divine’ moral systems which have been proposed.) Also, while the principle is absolute and unchanging, it recognizes the fact of social context. If a society has the custom of greeting someone by pinching their cheek, then that is not a ‘hateful’ behavior for that specific society, though it may be for others.
But, unlike divine morality, human morality offers no excuses. You can not kill idol worshipers. You can not oppress those who believe differently. You can not persecute people for their race or sexual orientation.
Not in the past, not now, not in the future.