Atheism is often criticized for making people the final judge of moral issues. This stance is a response to the question: “who gets to decide what is moral?”. Theists answer with God, rationalists with reason, seemingly leaving atheists who reject rationalism with two options: deny morality exists, or claim that people decide what morality is. As an atheist who doesn’t deny morality, I am basically committed to thinking that people decide what morality is.
A lot of theists I have debated believe this shows a flaw with atheism (or to be more particular, a humanist form of atheism). The general idea goes like this: people fall short of what is required to be a legitimate source of morality, so atheism cannot establish a morality based in the judgments of people. This is intuitively plausible, and the intuition backing this argument falls in line with the intuitions backing arguments against Cultural Relativism (cultures shouldn’t be allowed to arbitrarily select what morality is) and the intuitions supporting the Euthyphro Dilemma (God shouldn’t be allowed to arbitrarily select what morality is).
What I’ve come to realize is that, despite the intuitions against all of these ideas, we are necessarily committed to the truth of one of them if morality is to exist at all. If there are rules in morality, then the rules have to come from somewhere. No matter what attributes you give the source of morality, such as omniscience or omnipotence, it still comes down to an arbitrary choice by one source to decide what morality is. Even if moral rules were written on every atom, we could still ask: what justifies the rules on the atom being imposed on us? Either it is justified by another set of rules we should accept (starting an infinite regress of “why should I accept these rules?” question), or it is arbitrary. This directly contradicts the moral intuition that any rules imposed on me must be justified. In summation, the intuitive demands of morality are too high to justify morality in the first place.
The first step to take, upon coming to this realization, is to either reject morality altogether or to accept the intuitively unappealing arbitrariness of your morality. If you want to maintain morality, then you have to be content with a source for morality that doesn’t appeal to another source for justification (as this would only push the question back, not answer it). As an atheist, I have to be content with saying “people are the final judge of what is moral”.
The hard thing to explain next is how any morality that is based on the judgment of people can be coherent. After all, what happens when people inevitably disagree on what is moral? Hume’s answer is that people agree enough to have coherent morality, and the agreements come from our similar sentiments (sentiments being what morality is based in). There can still be objectivity as to what is moral and what is not, in a similar way that similar sentiments for art appreciation have established some objectivity as to what is good art. Morality, like art appreciation, can only be understood by a combination of sentiments (possibly unique to humans) and reason. Our aggregate sentiments define what is moral as our aggregate sentiments define what is good art.
The comparison of morality to art is what this post was originally meant to focus on (I probably wrote too much to lead into the idea). When understood in a way similar to art appreciation, morality can potentially be both objective (at least to an extent that it is usable) and be based in the judgments of people. This comparison faces the criticism I alluded to earlier: it makes people the final judge of what is moral (which many people believe is intuitively unacceptable). Making people the final judge of what is moral seems to give each person power to define morality for themselves. There are common sentiments that people can agree on, but also areas that they will have irreconcilable differences.
If my positions here are correct, then each person does have complete power to decide what rules they follow. I can accept the moral rules that are generally agreed upon, and I can also reject them entirely. I may have reasons to accept morality (as I am arguing in my Korsgaardian writing sample), but I still have the autonomous power to not live by those rules.
My original title “Being the God of Your Own Mind” alludes to this power. It’s a simple truth that I am making very complicated-what I live by is ultimately my decision. The complications are meant to show what this simple truth really means: I am the sole judge of what I should accept, and the sole judge of what things are worthwhile. Any agreements I have about morality with others stems from the similarities we share as human beings, not from a separate universal morality that we are both alluding to. It is entirely up to my own mind what meaning I find in life, what rules I allow myself to be subjugated to, and ultimately what type of person I want to be. In this way, I am the God of my own mind-I am the final judge of every matter about meaning and morality for my own perspective.
- Hopefully the flow of this post comes out clearly. Basically, I am trying to show why morality ultimately comes down to people’s individual sentiments (assuming atheism and not rationalism), and why this doesn’t eliminate morality altogether. From this, I want to make a basic point that I’ve had a hard time explaining: people have a lot more power in determining what rules they accept than they realize. I am optimistic that this supports morality, though it does not support many of the intuitions that we have grouped in with morality (such as the intuition that morality is somehow above human judgments).
The general idea of being the God of your own mind goes beyond just morality. It sounds pretty vague admittedly, but I genuinely do believe it is an important idea for understanding life in general. My own understanding of it has made me think differently about how I define who I am, and especially how I approach life. By defining my own rules, I choose what I value, and I choose how I let things affect me. The process of choosing what to value is how I understand the basis of morality, and choosing how I let things affect me justifies my “you always have a reason to be happy” stance (http://fensel.net/2012/02/27/understanding-why-we-should-always-be-happy/)
Rationalism in ethics claims that the existence of moral obligations can be derived from reason. John Locke, for example, thought that the existence of God could be discovered through reason, and that moral obligations could be derived from God. Other philosophers, especially in the last century, have argued that moral laws can be known through reason without the need for God.
The mindset behind Rationalism can be understood as such: each individual person is capable of using reason. Reason, when understood correctly, will lead you to certain moral laws that you are obligated to follow.
The problems with Rationalism come when the theory claims that reason is solely responsible for moral obligations (independent of emotions). Kant, for example, thought that the categorical imperative would apply to all rational beings, even ones that had no emotions. Basically, some actions are “wrong”, regardless of the way anyone feels about it.
The first problem with this is that “wrong” is a value judgment. I’ve talked before on why reason cannot produce this value (http://fensel.net/2012/03/07/reason-cannot-produce-value/) so I’ll leave it at that.
The main problem that I want to talk about is the idea that a failure to act morally can be thought of as a failure to use reason correctly. Since correct reasoning leads you to act on your moral obligations (according to Rationalism), it would take incorrect reasoning to lead you to act outside of your moral obligations. Either you incorrectly reasoned what morality requires, or you incorrectly reasoned whether or not you should act morally. However, if this is the flaw of acting immorally, then we lose any real justification for moral judgments. When we say someone acted immorally, we simply mean they act illogically. We cannot get the negative connotations of “immoral” from this understanding. There may be degrees of how illogical certain actions could be, but the judgment still comes down to: you acted against reason.
If all immoral actions are simply a failure of reasoning, then a moral judgment for a murder is no more harsh than a judgment for getting a math question wrong. When you murder someone, the flaw in your action is ultimately that you did not correctly reason what you should do. When you get a math question wrong, the flaw in your action is that you did not correctly reason what you should do. If this is the only flaw with choosing to murder, then the judgment for murder is identical to the judgment for getting a math question wrong.
This argument can be applied to dispositions to act (behavior) as well. Someone who has a disposition to act immorally frequently makes mistakes in his or her reasoning. The judgment of this person’s character (as someone who acts immorally a lot) is the same judgment of a person who frequently makes mistakes in their symbolic logic class.
If this is all that moral judgments/obligations are based in, then I fail to see how we can get anything close to the morality we think we have. Failing a Calculus class is as wrong as killing a thousand people, as both are solely judged as a failure of reasoning. So long as people want to think something is truly wrong with immoral actions, they are committed to understanding morality with more than just reasoning.
David Hume’s idea accommodates this problem well. Hume understood morality as sentiments, where we have certain positive or negative feelings toward actions. These feelings were universal enough to provide a common basis for practical morality. Actions are wrong because we all feel that they are wrong, and our emotions are capable of giving a more charged judgment of murder than simply “it was illogical to do that”.
-Foot note: I do think Rationalism has a place in ethics, just not as the only answer. I think morality needs to be understood with two separate questions: “why should I act morally?”, and “what does it mean to say an immoral action is wrong?”. I think a weaker form of Rationalism can answer the “why should I act morally?” question, so long as the stipulation is made that reason can only lead from values we have to moral values (they cannot create moral values in all rational beings). However, I think a Humean answer is necessary for the question “what does it mean to say an immoral action is wrong?”. A being that can’t understand emotion can’t understand our judgments of immoral actions. Our reaction to murder is entirely dependent on our human emotions, not our logical reasoning.