Thursday, January 03, 2013

What do you think? Is there an Absolute Truth in Morality?

Some christians claim that Truth, as in morality, is an absolute that is revealed by their god.  I am sure that muslims think so, too, as would jewish adherents.  Ditto with Hindu, and perhaps others.

My position is that morality is relative and changing with the society, the geography and the time period.

One can look through history and see multiple examples of this.  Cultures and societies which made and enforced different rules of morality depending on their own unique circumstances of geography and how their own culture's history had developed in the past, both as a result of physical geography's natural density of resources, climate and of how their culture had interfaced with neighboring cultures.

Some cultures glorified battle and conflict.  Some institutionalized it to limit its harm within itself, others  glorified conflict with other cultures, making themselves a pirate or bandit group internationally.  Some allowed homosexuality (Greece, as a male oriented mentor system), others practically ignored it - Europe has excoriated it as harmful in the past, until that changed!

Which brings up the issue of change with time.  Europe used to consider capital punishment to be the norm, and quite useful.  Today, European society has decided that it is no longer right, that it is, in fact, wrong.

The bible itself has shown changes to christian morality.  The very first of the Ten Commandments very insistently demands that one "have no other gods before me".  Textual critics will tell you that this and other passages in that book indicate that the Hebrews used to have multiple gods.  This was a passage that heralded the change into a monotheistic culture, as this passage obviously tells the Hebrews to ignore all those other gods.  It doesn't tell them not to invent fake ones.  The Ten Commandments were seen as so important that this passage was never changed once we began to think of there being only one god.  So, the evidence is still there!

Same with other passages about slavery, for instance.  Once, hebrews could own slaves, and though other hebrews could be owned, they could only be held for seven years.  But outsiders could be held forever!  Just like the Commandment against "killing".  The real translation was a prohibition against murder, which meant only a member of the hebrew tribe.  Outsiders, again, were fair game.

Eventually, even among the jews, this changed and it is now agreed that it is meant as a general prohibition against unjustified killing.  Self defense is allowed, apparently.

So, what do you think?  Is there an absolute morality?

What about religious views?

In Saudi Arabia, you can get in serious trouble trying to convert a muslim to christianity.  But in Europe or the US, that's a perfectly acceptable action, desirable, even, if you are christian.

But which is right?  Is there an adjective, eternal moral that covers that action?  If so, which is it?  Which society is wrong?  They can't be both be right!

Or can they?

Robert Ahrens
The Cybernetic Atheist


Gary Berg-Cross said...

My earlier post of Kahneman's research is relevant to this topic. We all have commonsense philosophical ideas about knowing. To know implies absence of doubt and true belief. But truth is a philosophical concept, and people disagree about what is true. There’s scientific truth that comes from a shared search for agreed and objective truth. This is the central mission of science. But in science just any belief is not part of the conception. It is possible for “true believers “ not to accept science as the way to truth. They argue that since some belief is central to science therefore it is just another religion.
See for more on this.

Don Wharton said...

This is an important question. I am on that side that asserts that there is an absolute moral truth if we have enough evidence and cognitive power to evaluate the consequences of various choices. Of course, given the nature of science we can never know the answer for many complex situationss. We are not obligated to appease true believers. Our obligation for the determination of moral truth extends only to those who accept science as the tool to test the nature of reality.

There is also the problem that within academia there is the contingent of those who reject science as a source of moral truth even where it can be documented that sufferind is dramatically reduced with one choice as opposed to another. This is a case where our understanding of science has not extended as far as it should due to excessive desire to not confront absurd religious claims.

Explicit Atheist said...

What other people in general conclude about any given topic, what different societies, geographies, and time periods say, can have some role in evaluating which alternatives have, or don't have, or have less, or have more, merit, and in trying to determine what history says about what works well and what doesn't work well, and the like. However, I disagree with citing public opinion, or differences in public opinion, as the authority. That is too lazy, and it is wrong. Every alternative is not equal on the merits, and merit isn't measured by counting votes, nor does lack of consensus, either historically or currently, undermine merit as having substance.

Some actions in some contexts are morally superior to competing actions, sometimes alternative actions are morally equivalent, and sometimes the comparative morality of alternative is ambiguous. It is context sensitive. I am not sure what the terms "absolute" or "relative" mean here. No such general attribute applies to the morality concept overall because it is context sensitive. Some societies were, and some are, at least in some respects, morally better than other societies, same for alternative geographies and times and individuals. Sometimes a consensus opinion is good, sometimes it is mixed, and sometimes it is bad. Sometimes there is no consensus, yet some are correct and others are wrong. Sometimes everyone is wrong. Every possible such combination occurs.

Making it a crime to change religious identity is morally inferior. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Yes, this qualifies as a fact. That is an example where the majorities in some countries or geographic regions or demographics are wrong.

Explicit Atheist said...

I agree with Don. Moral standards have improved because our understanding of how the world works has improved. The two are related, As Sam Harris argues, morality is rooted in facts about how the universe works. I reject the notion that it is arrogant to be judgemental because other societies have different notions of how the world works and from their perspective their morality is better. Walter Kaufmann wrote a book "The faith of a heretic" in which he argues that anyone who employs standards of belief justification that are too weak to adequately justify his own beliefs over other competing and contradictory beliefs holds unjustified beliefs. There is not one religion that passes the Walter Kaufman test as being a properly justified belief. As Jerry Coyne argues, empiricism is the only method that works. So when societies base their moral standards on their religious beliefs those moral standards are not properly justified and are going to tend to be mistaken.

simone amselli said...

First let’s consider truth: Since Plato, Truth is commonly defined as justified belief; however some people may consider the justification valid, some won’t. Let’s take the statement “God exists”; Thomas Aquinas has justified this truth by giving five proofs (one the most known and used is the argument for efficient cause: everything that exists has the cause, the universe must have a cause, therefore this cause must be God). Of course we must first agree with the premises to agree with the conclusion of this syllogism. Although the belief that God exists has been justified, not everyone agrees with the justification. Therefore Truth as justified belied does not lead to absolute truths, but only relative ones.
What is now the difference between relative and absolute truth? Truth is relative when some statements are true for some persons, not for everyone. For example, again, the statement “There is a God”. This truth, being accepted by “some “people is therefore relative. Absolute truths are true for all people and at all time. For example the truth “there is no square circle”. However absolute truths can become false: there was a time when it was an absolute truth (recognized by everyone) that the earth was flat and was the center of the universe. We know otherwise now. This means that “absolute truths” may be valid temporarily.
The fact that, as Robert argues, “some Christians, Jews, Moslems, etc… consider truth as in morality is an absolute that is revealed by their god.” The simple fact that we don’t accept one of the premises, “their god”, makes the truth relative. However to talk about moral truth, we must also define “morals”. Morals could be defined as a sense of right and wrong. We already encounter a problem here as not every culture agree with what actions or principles are right and which ones are wrong (capital punishment for example) and moral principles change also over time (for example how the Hebrews, then the Jews perceive slavery). Does this mean that moral is relative? There must be some moral principles that can be considered as “absolute truth”. If we take the moral principles one by one, none of them is applied all the time, by everyone in every culture. For example let’s take the moral principle: ”You shouldn’t kill”. We agree on it, but we still send soldiers to war knowing that they will “kill “, and some cultures accept capital punishment. We might even sometimes find “ethical” reason not to apply a moral principle. For example: “Lying”. There are instances when it is ethical to lie (not to tell the truth to a dying person for example). Therefore, no moral principle can be considered as an “absolute truth”. However without moral principles, there would be no humanity…. We would have killed each other a long time ago. There are no absolute moral principles, but morality is necessary to the survival of our species; and this can be an absolute truth, or is it?