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Problems With Morality

April 21, 2010

After a break, I’m going to return to the issue of humanist morality. In my last post on this I said that I thought a version of utilitarianism was the only option that I considered rational. I’d like to try and clarify why I think this is the case.

As a first step, why do I reject a “divine” source of morality? There are a few reasons, the most obvious of which is that I don’t believe in any god. But trying to be a bit more specific, what is it about biblical morality that I reject? There are three main issues:

  1. The Bible is full of stories of a god who commits acts that any sensible person would classify as immoral. It sanctions immoral behaviour (murder, slavery, sexism to name but a few). It is contradictory and when it makes factual statements about the material world and history is provably wrong.
  2. A biblical morality is necessarily unchanging. If I believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of god, where is the scope for me to change my stance on a moral issue as my understanding of the world around me grows? Humans have progressed amazingly far in the few generations that have passed since the bible was written, the Bible is simply unequipped to tell me how to deal with the moral circumstances I may find myself in in this “new world”.
  3. Linked to point 2, religious people I have talked to generally decide to ignore, or take metaphorically, those bits of the Bible that they find immoral. This is the strongest argument against taking the Bible as a moral authority; the fact is that people use their own morality to decide what is and isn’t moral in the Bible. There has to be a morality independent of a holy text for people to decide what to ignore and what to follow.

These points don’t relate just to Christian morality, and are the basis on which I am happy to dismiss “divine” guidance on moral issues.

So, to morality. Having rejected divine inspiration I think I have two choices; I can define morality in terms of the consequences of my actions or in terms of my intentions when acting. That is, either an action is moral because it results in “good” consequences (for some definition of good) or an action is moral because I meant to do “good” when performing that action. These are the consequentialist and deontological ethical theories (obviously simplified a bit).

Of these two options I tend towards consequentialism. I’ll attempt to explain why in my next post.

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