Conversations: Morality and Reality

There are people who believe the only standard of morality is found in their religious texts. They often believe that unless their holy texts are accepted as “the word of God”, so to speak, there can be no universal standard of morality.

That is curious, since we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require, say, the existence of a lawgiving deity.

Indeed, for there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world. That is to say, if there are psychological laws that govern human well-being, knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality.

Surprisingly, this escapes a lot of people. And subsequently, one of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not.

You mean, when concerns have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation?

Indeed, I would argue that religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are in fact highly immoral.

That is, when pressing these concerns people inflict unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings?

Yes, this explains why Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, et cetera, expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide. It explains why people are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research. And it explains why people can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.

To be fair though, those are some pretty controversial topics.

Look, we are the first to admit that issues such as abortion and stem-cell research are topics that require our closest attention; so that we may, in time, come up with solutions that realise the lowest amount of human suffering, in order that the greatest amount of human happiness and welfare may be achieved. But do not worry, we will discuss these issues in more detail soon.

I wish to add that among the religious denominations that you mentioned earlier there is a substantial number of people who believe that their concerns about sex, in all their tiresome immensity, have something to do with morality. And yet, their efforts to constrain the sexual behaviour of consenting adults—and even to discourage their own sons and daughters from having premarital sex—are almost never geared toward the relief of human suffering.

Good point, in fact I do not think it cynical to say that relieving suffering does not seem to rank high on their list of priorities. Their principal concern appears to be that the creator of the universe will take offence at something people do while naked. And this prudery contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 9-10)

See other: Philosophical Conversations

13 thoughts on “Conversations: Morality and Reality

  1. To attribute morality to the Judeo/Christian/Islamic god is to presuppose a god who is concerned with human suffering, which the biblical Book of Job denies, without ever taking into account the universal flood story or the tales of the genocide of the Canaanites.

  2. My statement makes no sense without that phrase you used to have on this page, referring to “a brothel for the mind” – I just realized that it’s gone, what happened to it?

  3. Ah, I got so used to seeing it, I didn’t realize it wasn’t there.

  4. Did you know that you can get a herd of sheep jumping over a low rail between two fence posts, then slide the rail out, and the sheep will continue jumping at that same spot? – I feel like one of those sheep!

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