When a believer loses his faith and becomes a nonbeliever, one of the first questions he must ask himself is: “What is my moral code?”
For some newly deconverted atheists, the question never arises. They just continue to follow the same system most people do: be kind and generous, try not to hurt people, etc. Perhaps they are more accepting of gays and less judgmental of people, but otherwise their moral code remains the same.
I didn’t feel that way. As a Christian, my entire ethical system was bound up in what I thought God had said was good. If God didn’t exist, that meant I had no idea what was right and wrong.
I had already spent 21 years following a false ethical system. Perhaps I had even made a net negative impact on the world because of it! Had I made the world a worse place because I’d been following a false ethical system, or had I gotten lucky and not caused too much harm?
In any case, I quickly felt the urgency of finding the correct ethical theory if there was one. I didn’t want to die leaving the world a worse place than if I’d never been born, just because I was unlucky enough to be raised in a barbaric ancient super-cult! I had to find an ethical theory that corresponded to what existed in the real universe, and fast.
How do we know what is good?
I immediately ran into a big problem. Moral values don’t seem to be measurable or discoverable the same way physical facts are. Every theory I came across merely asserted that certain things had intrinsic moral value: happiness, pleasure, complexity, a particular list of virtues, a particular list of duties, living organisms, whatever. But philosophers never explained how they knew that their pet moral system had true moral value. Did they have some kind of advanced “moral radiation detector” they used to measure morality? Had they frozen certain actions in time, cracked them open, and found something called “moral value” inside? I was deeply confused by their arguments.
Actually, the most common test of an ethical theory seemed to be: Does this ethical theory give answers that fit with our moral intuitions?
Moral philosophers seemed to spend most of their time showing how other theories led to absurd results – for example, that Preference Satisfaction Utilitarianism would require that an angry mob kill an innocent man if that satisfied the preferences of the mob. Then they’d argue that their own theory led to results that were more palatable.
The wrong test
That struck me as a bizarre test for an ethical theory. It would be like lining up scientific theories about cosmology or genetics or neuroscience and asking the public: “Which theory fits best with your feelings on the matter?”
What a strange way to go after the truth about morality!
The defenders of this approach seemed to assume that humans had evolved a sixth sense (“the conscience”) to detect moral values out there in the universe, and that this sense could be trusted.
But I could see no reason to think humans had evolved morality-detectors, and even if we had, I saw no reason to think this sense could be trusted.
Let’s say we have evolved a “sixth sense” that can directly detect moral values. Can it be trusted? I think not.
First, because different people’s consciences give wildly different answers to moral questions. Even rape, killing, and incest are morally permitted (or encouraged, in some circumstances) in a many societies.
Second, because the “collective answer” given by humanity’s consciences to common moral questions has changed so rapidly throughout history. A few centuries ago most consciences agreed that sexism and racism were morally good. A few centuries further back, and slaughtering your neighbors for their land was considered good, especially if God said so. A few centuries from now we should also expect worldwise morality to be much different. Have moral values in the universe been changing, or are our consciences going haywire?
If morality-detectors exist, they don’t seem reliable at all.
But I don’t think there are any good reasons to think we have evolved morality-detectors in the first place. We certainly haven’t found them in the brain. There isn’t a clear adaptive advantage to being able to detect moral values. Sure, we have evolved to feel that certain things are good or bad, but let us not mistake that feeling for a mental faculty that accurately detects “intrinsic moral value.”
How to test ethical theories
It is a simple consequence of the fact that we have not evolved reliable morality detectors that we must choose an ethical theory just as we would a scientific theory: based not on our feelings, but on what we actually find out there in the universe, and what conforms to logic.
Those are the correct tests for an ethical theory.
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