User:Woozle/Morality Without God

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Apparently many people believe that God is the source of all morality; that without God, we would all act selfishly and amorally – casually hurting and killing each other for the sake of a passing fancy or a moment of pleasure, and generally doing whatever we thought we could get away with.

Not only do many people believe this, but it is apparently also widely taught, and many more people come to believe it each day. The argument for the necessity of believing in God becomes completely compelling when one believes that God is the source of all goodness, and so more and more people feel compelled to believe in God in order to spread goodness and to keep the forces of evil and selfishness from victory.

Wanting to be a force for good, and to overcome the forces of evil, is a commendable goal. I highly recommend it to everyone, and I try to follow it myself – but I do not find myself depending on the existence of a God in order for there to be goodness, nor in order for me to be a good person.

Since many of the same people who have been taught that God is the source of all morality have also not been taught any other basis upon which to build a moral foundation for their lives, I thought I would make an attempt to explain mine. I wouldn't go so far as to hold it up as a shining example of how everyone should behave (you're likely to get in a lot of trouble if you do, even if it would be for what I consider to be the "right" reasons), but I believe it to be a reasonable first pass, and perhaps others can fine-tune it to better serve their core values and to be more workable in general.

For those new to Issuepedia: Throughout this essay I have used links to various pages within Issuepedia. The pages I link to are not any kind of definitive "the final word" on each subject. They are more like rough drafts of an attempt to explain each idea and its context within a social/moral system. It is part of the wiki nature of Issuepedia, however, that anyone is welcome to refine those ideas further; thus do we gradually work our way towards the truth.

The Basics

The essential questions here, as I see it, are:

  • What is "good"?
  • What is "bad"?
  • Why is anyone "good" if they don't have to be?
  • Why are some people bad?
  • How can we "stay good" when a lot of people around us may behave badly, or even be actively evil?


It seems to me that "good" boils down to "helping other people". Some hypothetical examples:

Someone who is pleasant and easy to get along with is "good" because they make life more enjoyable for those around them. If that same nice-seeming person goes home and abuses their family, we no longer think they are as good, because whatever harm someone does counterbalances the good.

The fact that they are capable of behaving nicely also might weigh against them, because we have to wonder why they are being so nice in one situation and so hateful in another; is it because they are hoping to gain special favors from someone who has something that they want, by being extra-nice around that person – while the family whom they are supposed to love and care for above all others gets to suffer because our Mr. Hyde knows they won't rat on him, so he can maintain a public image of niceness at the hidden expense of having his family for a punching-bag? Or is it merely because there are stress-factors at home which make him angry, and he is able to be pleasant in their absence? Either way he has a problem, but the first indicates active malice while the latter is merely someone overwhelmed by circumstances and possibly in need of help.

side point: Weight of Opinion

This brings up a side-point which I should probably explain, just for the record: We might not know about this person's family-abuse, and so we might misjudge them as being good overall, but that doesn't change the fact of how good (or bad) they really are. When we talk about judgments like "good" and "bad", we're really talking about two different things: (1) our best judgment of someone's character, and (2) what the truth really is. We only know #1 for sure, and each of us may have our own opinions about a particular person's "goodness" – but if it's important, we can explain what we have seen of that person's behavior and thus explain why we think what we think. It doesn't have to come down to "I think I'm right and you're wrong".

Many people seem to think that every opinion is equally valid; it seems to me that this is not quite true. What seems more true is this:

  • Everyone is entitled to have an opinion.
  • Nobody's opinions are automatically more valuable than anyone else's.

What generally makes one person's opinion more valuable than another's is:

  • the particular observations they have made
  • what other experience they might have which could shed light on those observations
  • the degree to which they have thought those observations through in the light of that other experience.

An "expert", whose opinion is conceivably more valuable in the particular area of their expertise, has more relevant experience and "thinking-through" of related matters; it is those qualities which make the expert's opinion more valuable – not the fact that the expert might have a string of symbols after her/his name, or have other official approval of some kind. Someone who has dealt successfully with a particular kind of problem, time and again, is far more valuable with regard to solving that particular kind of problem than is someone with a string of degrees as long as your arm but with no prior experience.

Creating beautiful art is generally seen as "good", because art makes the world a more pleasant, enjoyable place to be, and because it may inspire others to create further works of art or craftsmanship. Creating works of craftsmanship generally makes the world a better place in a more immediate way; if someone builds a chair, then if we had just enough chairs for the family to sit in beforehand, now we have enough for a guest too. If someone builds a house, then that's one more place for someone to live.

...but what if the house was built on formerly undeveloped land which children or families used to play in or take walks in? What if the house is owned by a development company, and they are selling it for far, far more than the cost of the land plus the cost of building the house? This is where things get complicated. Did the previous owner of the land realize how much money the development company would be making? Was the previous owner forced to sell in order to pay the increased property taxes due to the higher land values due to the other new development down the road? Who benefits from all this, aside from the development company? If the development company benefits, is that a good thing? If development companies buy up all the developable land in a certain area, then what will the children of the company's owners do for a living?

side note: Sustainability

This last question relates to the idea of sustainability: can you go on doing what you're doing now indefinitely, down to the nth generation, or are you using up a finite resource? This is one of the key ways in which the word conservative has come to be misused, at least in the US: "conservatives" tend to be disinterested in – or even hostile towards – conserving our way of life through sustainability, while so-called liberals tend to support it heavily.

temporary writer's block; baksun...