Sam Burdock, Warwick Alumnus, Philosophy and Literature 2007-10.
I want to argue for the possibility of an objective and secular moral system. It’s not my intention to state what that system might look like, but rather to show that it is possible to have an objective moral system that is not inspired or authored by a divine being. By objective I mean that when we say something is moral or immoral, we are making a claim whose truth value can be assessed.
Two standards which I believe all secular moral systems aspire to are to be evidence-based and self-correcting. If we, as a society, were to adopt a particular moral position, only to find that it resulted in more harm than good, we would have to reverse or alter our position. That would be the moral thing to do. A theistic moral system has no such standards, because divine scripture provides all the answers to us, complete and unalterable. However, when you ask a theist to demonstrate that their moral system is better than any other, they inevitably defer to evidence from reality. If not, the circular reasoning of “God’s moral system is correct because God says so” is exposed.
In this way, it’s almost trivial to demonstrate that one doesn’t need a God to be moral. We inevitably analyse the efficacy of a particular moral system against the available evidence. If it is indeed the case that a theistic moral system, be it derived from the Tanakh, Bible or Quran, is better than another moral system, then that fact will only be borne out by the evidence, not its divine origin. The supposed fact that this moral system was authored by a God is ultimately inconsequential, since it could equally have been authored by any human being who possesses a keen interest in individual and societal well-being.
One common objection to this line of thinking is that we humans wouldn’t even know that suffering was immoral unless God had given us the ability to discern right from wrong. There is no evidence to support this claim outside of scripture. What is more, the biological and sociological evidence overwhelmingly suggests that humans possess an ingrained sense of altruism and empathy. This sense does not require a God; its evolutionary origins in primate sociality have been expounded for decades.
The only recourse for a theist who wants to continue to affirm that God is an essential component of a moral system is to argue that the primary purpose of a moral system is not the betterment of individuals and society, but rather to follow the commandments of God. My first objection to this is that it presupposes not only the existence of a God, but also his benevolence. Until these presuppositions can be validated through further evidence, there is no reason to accept the claim that to follow God’s commandments is to act morally.
My second objection to this claim is known as the “Euthyphro dilemma”, named for the Platonian dialogue in which Socrates discusses piety and its relationship to the Gods. The dilemma can be best illustrated through example: if, tomorrow, God commanded his followers to conduct the wholesale slaughter of a particular group of people, then his followers would have little choice but to obey. Such a command would mean the slaughter is moral. Many theists would suggest that their God would not give such a command, because it is against his nature to act immorally. If this is the case, then God must be subject to a moral system that he himself cannot change.
Put simply, if God precedes morality, then morality is arbitrary, non-evidential and subject to the whims of this deity. If morality precedes God, then we do not need God to discern right from wrong. As a secularist, I have no problem in stating that, if a God does exist, the moral law must precede him. A theist who believes their God is ultimately responsible for morality has a far more difficult choice to make.