Monday, August 22, 2011

The hidden god of secular morality

The day I became an atheist was the day I realized I had been a believer.

Up until then I had numbered myself among the “secular ethicists.” Plato’s “Euthyphro” had convinced me, as it had so many other philosophers, that religion is not needed for morality. ...

As the philosopher Louise Antony puts it in the introduction to a recent collection of philosophers’ essays, “Philosophers without Gods: Secular Life in a Religious World”: “Another charge routinely leveled at atheists is that we have no moral values. The essays in this volume should serve to roundly refute this. Every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong.”

But I don’t. Not any longer. ...

[C]ould I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.

The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
--Philosopher Joel Marks, NYT, on the foundation of morality