So earlier this morning, I was on tumblr (that destroyer of all social life), and watched an argument unfold between a theist and an atheist, in which the theist asked the atheist how he could justify morality within the framework of materialism. And I got MAD. And i wrote a long, rambling justification of why you can be good without God. And I thought that other people who are good without God should see it. So here it is. I hope it’s as coherent as I wanted it to be.
“Hello, sir, I am the anon who posed the question to you about your materialism and your equal rights views. I can’t say I was entirely satisfied with what you gave me in return; I really do hope you have a second to give your thoughts on my response. Here goes
“Where does it say I’m a materialist?”
Well, sir, I thought it was pretty obvious given your position on this blog, also the posts you write… if you really are a materialist, then please don’t make this any trouble than it needs to be by asking “how do you know?”
“The ability to analyze our own thoughts makes us able to make moral decisions.”
I don’t really care, sir, why evolution says we think moral thoughts. I want more of a justification, a reason for morality than an explanation of moral behavior.
The point is is that when you take away the idea of equal rights in humans, all your morality arguments really lose their weight, i.e. an argument that we should assist homeless people because “it’s right” doesn’t make sense if homeless people have no moral equality with other, more well-off people. With equal rights of humans goes the value of human life. Your evolutionary competitors are no more than animals; thus, hurting them or not helping them can’t possibly be “wrong” at all, no matter how much people call it “wrong.”
But equality must be a transcendental thing, because if it is not, then it can’t exist, not being material – can you put equality into a test tube? – and its existence is merely in our minds. And if that’s the case, then anyone can go around doing what everyone else says is “right,” but the truth is is that he has no real reason for doing it.
“If we analyze these thoughts outside of the influence of culture and tradition, we can ask ourselves why we hold biases about certain people, what fairness is…”
What is fairness? Why should one be fair? You see, once again you presuppose the existence of an immaterial standard of human life that makes us all equal. But this is precisely what your worldview can’t consistently accept!
“Add this to the fact that altruism is present in nature among animals, which
shows that this is an evolved trait which is beneficial over-all to the species.”
Sir, please stop explaining the cause behind morality to me and tell me what makes it of any value. Tell me if right or wrong really do exist. I don’t want to know the evolutionary explanation behind why people THINK right and wrong exist, I want whether or not they do exist. Come on.
“There will always be those who discriminate, and who are biased.” So?
How can discrimination and bias carry a negative connotation unless you carry with you the presupposition that we’re all equal? That human life has value, and that value is what discrimination and bias violate? But evolution denies that human life has value. It denies that we’re all equal. So how can you be an evolutionist and still carry the idea that we ARE equal, that our lives DO have value. According to you, we’re no more than overgrown germs. Do you see my point?
“I suppose you could say that equal rights at it’s most basic is an opinion”
So equal rights don’t exist? Then what what are you doing blaming religion for discrimination and bias? What equality do discrimination and bias break, when you just admitted to me that equal rights, the value of human life, don’t exist?”
All of the above was the original message of the theist. My response-
Ok, first of all this person does not understand the concept of materialism. Are you asserting that baldwin (the atheist) is a strict materialist or a loose materialist? Because from all that I can see, Baldwin is a loose materialist, meaning he believes in consciousness and the things that spring therefrom. He does not (anywhere that I can see) assert that if you can’t see it, or if it isn’t physical, it doesn’t exist. Atheism DOES NOT EQUAL materialism. Ok? Ok.
So it is entirely possible for someone to have a moral and ethical code that has nothing to do with a physical and literal reason for WHY humans should be treated well and still be a materialist.
“I want more of a justification, a reason for morality than an explanation of moral behavior.”
Ok. The justification is that it’s good for our species. Morality helps us all procreate, protects the species as a whole, and generally allows us to flourish. That is a REASON. yes it may be an evolutionary reason, but you did in fact ask for a materialist reason why we should be moral.
“What is fairness? Why should one be fair? You see, once again you presuppose the existence of an immaterial standard of human life that makes us all equal. But this is precisely what your worldview can’t consistently accept! “
Alright this one bothers me a hella lot. Materialists CAN allow an immaterial standard of human life. IF IT IS LOGICAL. You ponce. EVERYONE uses immaterial standards constantly, and while a materialist will say that we can trace them back to material causes, they themselves are still immaterial. For example, a materialist is allowed to say something like “all life is valuable”. You may ask why. The materialist may then answer something like “life is the only thing we have. After death, we cease to exist. Human life is the only life that can think logically and our ability to think ethically gives us a responsibility to act ethically. If we treat humans as worthless, or base their worth upon actions or skills, we have no coherent way of judging worth. Instead, we should understand that life in and of itself is valuable because it is all that we have, and thus treat all life as having worth”. This is called LOGIC. It springs from someone’s worldview but also includes making conclusions from a number of premises. The conclusions could be immaterial.
“The point is is that when you take away the idea of equal rights in humans, all your morality arguments really lose their weight, i.e. an argument that we should assist homeless people because “it’s right” doesn’t make sense if homeless people have no moral equality with other, more well-off people. With equal rights of humans goes the value of human life. Your evolutionary competitors are no more than animals; thus, hurting them or not helping them can’t possibly be “wrong” at all, no matter how much people call it “wrong.””
Alright, let’s start off with something simple. Value and moral worth are not the same thing as being equal. I would NEVER assert that all human beings are equal, or even that they all have equal rights exactly (this isn’t the place to explain this). However I will say that all humans have worth or value. Equality does NOT GIVE YOU VALUE. I think we should assist homeless people because every human life is valuable, and when I say life I mean “life with all its basic necessities”. If someone is deprived of those basic necessities, they then have a right to help accessing them. Not because they are morally equal to those people who have stuff and so you have to treat them the same way. Because they, themselves, alone, not in comparison to ANYONE ELSE have worth. Because they are alive and conscious. End of story.
Finally, you seem to be assuming that all materialists hold evolution as some sort of moral standard. This is laughable. Evolution is a fact. We are animals and from animals we developed certain traits that have now set us at a certain distance from animals. Naturally, life is brutal. Animals fight with each other to survive. That is a set of facts. What you seem to be missing is that “is” does not equal “ought” (this is a very basic philosophical premise). Just because something IS the way it is does not mean that we take it as a moral imperative. Yes, other human beings naturally are our evolutionary competition. That doesn’t mean that we SHOULD treat them as our competition. That doesn’t mean that we should accept the way things have been. And in fact, if you look carefully at most of the evolutionary science, altruism and other kind actions developed because it was good for the species. Competition is not even necessary in this Darwinian world. So no, just because human beings are, as you say, “overgrown germs” does not mean we SHOULD treat them as worthless. Because we can think critically about this idea, we can then realize that there is more to human beings than simple competition and act accordingly. Consciousness is HUGELY important here. It is a standard which, across the board, sets us apart from other animals. Pain and pleasure can easily be seen as a standard of good and evil. They are the most basic moral compasses of human beings. If you ask me why, I will punch you because it has been debated and argued by hundreds of philosophers and is STILL generally accepted. It is simply impossible to prove any morality (look at your God. Not proven). There is ALWAYS a point at which we need to look at our emotional response to something, our guilt and our conscience, our general understanding of the world, of what allows life to flourish and what destroys life, and simply say “this is what I believe is right and wrong because of how the world works.” And so a materialist can do just that. A materialist can look at evolution and say “I believe that helping my fellow human beings will reduce harm in the world and will help to create and sustain life. Because life is a core value (because there is nothing else besides life), this is what is right”.
This should not be that hard to figure out. Facts do not determine morality. They simply influence it. Morality is a different set of facts besides those we see in our everyday lives. Even a materialist will accept that they belong to a rationalist, not an empirical plane of existence.
Now please don’t try to philosophically debate materialist morality unless you have some CLUE of the concepts of both morality and materialism.
(sidenote-I know not all of our readers are atheists, but the skeptic and atheist communities have pretty wide overlap so I thought it would be relevant regardless)