The debate over morality between Atheists and Theists is forever ongoing. I think Atheists mistakenly believe Theists claim they can’t act in a moral manner, but this isn’t the issue. Most Atheists, in my experience, are relatively honest, caring people with genuine concern for their fellow man. However, I have always been puzzled by the Atheist’s claim that a godless, non-transcendent worldview can somehow produce an objective ethical code which supplies moral prescriptions to persons who share different opinions on what is and isn’t moral.
Inevitably, what the Atheists argues for is some form of relativism, be it individual or cultural. Either of which have no solid immovable standard.
Individual relativism, or personal ethics, isn’t really morality. One’s moral convictions are limited only by the will-power and sensibilities of the individual. There is nothing binding on the individual to keep his or her own standards. If someone is handcuffed, but has access to the key, can they be said to be truly bound? When their personal set of standards gets in the way, they can be adjusted or removed at will. If we are in control of the standard, it is not truly binding. There is no objectivity in personal ethics, they are binding on no one but the individual. Standards can be lowered, actions can be justified or explained away, thus the ethos is fluid.
Culturally imposed ethics is nothing more than a collection of individuals coming together to agree on a moral code. Having others involved in the moral decision-making does not create objectivity. The group decides which behaviors are morally permissible and which are not. Decided morally impermissible behaviors are penalized by the group. But what is good or bad can be adjusted whenever based on the whims of the populace, making no behavior either good or bad, but preferred or not under the current conditions.
Group morality is also fluid as evidenced by the creating and repealing of new laws by the thousands each and every year. What is legal and permissible one year, is not in the next. What has been determined to be impermissible last year, is not today. However, the Atheist will proclaim “but not everything that is immoral is illegal”. I agree. Unfortunately, since not everyone will agree which behaviors are both immoral and legal, the determination, in order to maintain objectivity, must be derived from outside the individual or group. Some Atheist’s believe they have found this answer with an evolutionary explanation.
However, an evolutionary appeal is akin to cultural relativism. The ethical traits which best helped propagate the species were selected for and passed on to ensure group survival. I have always disagreed with the conclusion that moral behavior – especially altruism – can be derived from the drive to survive.
My own interests are my priority. On natural selection it would seem that my interests should be secured by any means necessary in order to protect and expand my progeny. In this respect, perhaps rape might be ideal to get as many of my descendants into the next generation as possible — it works in the animal kingdom. Robbing little old ladies (the weak and sick) might be the easiest way to get money easily, which buys food and other living essentials — it works in the animal kingdom.
Attributing good behaviors to the best chance of survival as a means of deriving moral goodness equivocates the meaning of the word “good”. Behaving in a way that aids in survival, even for the benefit of the group, is not a moral sense of the word good. It is good in the same way some moves in a game of chess are good. Some moves are more ideal to achieving an end goal than others. Losing your Queen on your third move may be procedurally bad and creating a handicap making capturing your opponents King more difficult, but it’s not morally a bad move. On naturalistic evolution, behaving morally is only procedurally good, it helps achieve a goal.
Morality is directly related to, and derived from value. The reason certain behaviors are morally impermissible on theism is because human beings possess inherent value. On philosophical naturalism, people are but one living organism among millions of others such as beetles, snakes, mosquitoes, tulips, algaes, or the flu virus. Nothing in the Naturalist’s/Atheist’s worldview prescribes value. Naturalism describes, theism prescribes. The atheistic worldview has no mechanism to prevent one from moving their own moral goal posts. The Atheist’s morality can be fluid, binding only himself voluntarily, making the objectivity of morality illusory at best.