Here’s a riddle for you.*
Is it better to have flexible, socially contextual morals that may dip below what many people view as laudable behaviour as a result of free will and personal choice . . . or is it better to have a uniformly high moral standard followed, in part or even in whole, as a result of fearing the perceived consequences of not following it?
Of course, you might say that I’ve used Wordification to bias the issue somewhat – and because I have no higher power to feel accountable to I’m perfectly happy to lie, and say that I didn’t bias the point in the slightest.
The question, I suppose, is how worthy or altruistic can a high moral standard be truly taken to be when it’s prescribed rather than acquired? It becomes little more than Utilitarianism if your moral compass is constantly aware that behaving immorally will result in hell, or a few lost brownie-heaven points from God. You’re not acting morally, you’re just protecting your own skin – which is exactly what I would do, of course.
Clearly the issue is fiercely complex after even a cursory glance. Because so many moral codes adopted by secularists could, likewise, be viewed as contextual to the consequences of breaking these same codes. If there was no judicial system with which to label certain acts as wrong, and mete out appropriate punishment, I highly doubt the society in question would remain in moral stasis. I’m happy to say that I’d likely have done, or tried to do, entirely unwholesome things without the restraining hand of Authority hovering over my balls. Theists may have their fear of God to instil a sense of morality; atheists may have their fear of getting touched up in jail. It’s just as self-serving.
Of course, the spectrum of morality and immorality operates in realms oft untouched by law; the way you think, they way you treat other people, the little things. A moral stance affects all subtle aspects of your life, not just your unwillingness to kill a guy and then stave in his hips with a pensioner. Let’s take the time I stole£20 from someone in a fast food joint. I walked in and saw the note on the ground by the man’s feet. He’d clearly dropped it and was now waiting, an ignorant score lighter, for his burger. I very briefly wondered if I should tell him, but then I decided not to. I stood next to him, my boot on the note so he couldn’t see it, until he left. And then I picked it up. Why?
Because I like money, because I’m selfish, because I don’t have a conscience that feels bad about such things. There was no legal consequence to my action that I had to fear; the only possible consequence was being discovered, and I felt I could talk my out of it if needs be. I acted in a way that many people might consider immoral, because my morality – under the umbrella of legality – is flexible. Clearly, I don’t think I would just start knifing babies in the chin if murder was legalised. I think I would feel bad. I may not grant the notion of objective morality any time at all, but I can grant that there are trends and broadly universal immoral acts, and judicial consequencialism (what an amazing phrase – I hope I didn’t just make it up) is not the single dam holding back a tidal wave of human sludge. There would be shifts, of course, and a rise in violence and theft, but not everyone would realise that they wanted to break laws just because the laws no longer existed.
What if someone religious was in my place, someone with a highly defined and apparently objective sense of morality? Let’s assume they do what we all know the right thing is – pick up the money and give it to the guy. Bravo! Except, why have you done this? Is it because your morality has been painstakingly constructed, over many years, by exposure to myriad different situations and modes of thought? Or is it because you think that not doing it will get you a disapproving stare from whatever deity you call home? And this is only assuming that we’ve found one of the theists who actually follows their own arbitrary objective morals, to the letter, without questions. As we all know from our sojourns through Youtube, religiously inspired morals and codes tend to be as flexible as their secular counterparts. Lying is fine, it seems, if you’re lying for Jesus.
Allow me a brief bit of poetry. Would you rather be in a hotel which locked from the outside or a barn that locked from the inside? Give me the freedom to plumb whatever depraved and lustful depths I see fit, and I’ll do it as a free man.
I’ll leave you with this. It’s pretty infuriating, of course. Highlights include:
‘Cherie Booth wasn’t saying that religious people are morally superior to others. She was saying that, as a religious man, he should know better.’ Well, that pretty much IS saying that religious people are morally superior, if she is granting them the power to know right from wrong when a non-religious man apparently would – the reasonable inference suggests – NOT be capable of knowing better. No, only the mystical and nebulous power of !Religion! can instil the ability to Know Better.
*Not actually a riddle.