An Objective Source of Morality in the Absence of God

When Nietzche declared that “God is dead”, it was not the triumphant declaration of an enlightened society overcoming the need for “superstition”. Rather, it was a terrifying realization for an enlightened man who feared for the future of mankind. He described it as: “one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity”. Without a god that sets out the moral order for the universe, there appears to be no source of objective morality. If mankind is not made by god, in the image of god, then there is no objective rationale to determine that every human life is sacred, because nothing is sacred in the absence of divinity. We are left in a cold, uncaring universe that values human life no more than it does a bacterium or any of the billions of species that have gone extinct over the eons.

Without an objective moral order, it is left to reason to determine what is right and what is wrong. And reason can be used to do so, one can use reason to formulate a logically coherent moral order which results in good outcomes, but most of these philosophies are founded upon preconceptions which are not self-evident, such as that every human life has value and is therefore inviolable. But if you found your philosophy on other preconceptions, you can rationalize almost anything as morally acceptable.

This is the premise of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Rodion Raskolnikov rationalizes the murder and robbery of a pawn-broker. The pawn-broker is a cruel and unscrupulous woman who preys on the financial desperation of others. She is essentially alone in the world, and no one depends upon her but herself. Conversely, Raskolnikov meets the father of an impoverished family whose daughter has had to resort to prostitution to help them make ends meet. Raskolnikov reasons that it is just to kill and rob the pawn-broker to help those more deserving of her wealth. This representation of utilitarianism was a direct criticism by Dostoyevsky of the rational egoism of radical socialists in 19th century Russia.

Roskolnikov killing the pawn-broker – Illustration by Stanley Wyatt

Despite his rationalization, after he commits the crime, he is haunted by the evil of his actions. His conscience is not subject to his reason. Dostoyevsky would argue that this conscience, independent of reason, is therefore objective and proof of the moral order instilled in Raskolnikov by God. This is where Dostoyevsky falls short. The conscience may not be as independent as reason, but it is just as subjective. Our conscience is informed by the values of our parents, our siblings, our religion, and our society at large. Our conscience develops through the process of socialization. What might weigh on the conscience of a 21st century Irish man such as myself might not weigh on the conscience of an 18th century Ottoman Muslim. The conscience is not even an inherent characteristic. Studies of feral and incredibly neglected children suggest that without the experience of attachment and socialization, no conscience or empathy is developed at all.

So, if there is no god to provide an objective moral order, and the conscience does not provide one-with or without the belief in god-then how can we find an objective moral order within ourselves? If the conscience does not necessarily tell us what is wrong when we do wrong, what can? We must look, not to how we react when we do wrong, but rather to how we react when wrong is done to us. When we are insulted, we feel disrespected; when we are injured we feel hurt; when we are stolen from, we feel aggrieved. Our reactions to being wronged do not appear to be subjective in the way that our reactions to doing wrong are.

If I were to carry out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on a woman, I would be abhorred and my conscience would condemn me for it. But a man in another culture in which FGM is acceptable would not have the same reaction. However, the woman in each situation would have the same reaction. They would both feel the same pain, the short-term pain of the act and the long-term pain and discomfort resulting from it. They would both suffer the loss of sexual pleasure and the exposure to infection which FGM brings. One cannot reason away pain, nor can you rationalize sexual pleasure into being. Thus, while only one of the men believe they have done wrong, both women know or at least feel they have been wronged. And no amount of rationalization can change that.

Now, it is true that one can rationalize being wronged. Victims of domestic abuse often rationalize remaining in an abusive relationship out of fear, low self-esteem, or economic necessity, but that does not obviate the the objective sense of immorality. They still feel the pain when they are struck, they still feel the fear when they are threatened, they still feel slighted when they are insulted. Just as our reason can manipulate our conscience, so too can our reason manipulate our grievance. But the justification does not eliminate the pain and suffering we feel, therefore the reaction is objective, even if the rationalization is subjective.

If an action would do us harm when done to us, then the same is true if we were to do so to others. If harm is felt as a wrong, then it must be wrong regardless of who is feeling that wrong. And, consequently, if we wish that no harm be done to us, we must live by our own creed and not wrong others, because the only actions within an individual’s control are their own. And unless one lives as an example, we cannot appeal to others to accept that creed and follow that example.

As such, there is an inherent, objective moral guide within us all, independent of god, our conscience, our reason, or our culture. Which is not to say that we inherently know right from wrong, but rather that there is an inherent source from which we can determine right and wrong. Though there are many who choose to ignore that guide, because they only apply those principles to themselves and the harms done to them, that is not to say that that guide is not available to them, should they choose to heed it.

In many ways, this is not a new argument. It is essentially Christ’s Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But it is distinct in its foundation. Christ’s Golden Rule is founded upon the principle that we are all created by god and loved equally by god, and therefore we should love each other as god loves us and as we love ourselves. That is the source of objective moral truth of the Golden Rule. The source of objective moral truth of my conception of the Golden Rule is that, if it is objectively true of every individual for themselves, and that moral code can only be breached by individuals other than themselves, then each individual must adhere to that code so that no individual can suffer from a breach of the code.

The Sermon on the Mount – Carl Bloch, 1890

Such a moral code does not necessitate god, but nor does it obviate god. For those who believe in god, it could be said that this inherent moral guide was placed within us by god through creation. This objective morality can bridge the divide between believers and non-believers alike. Nor does this morality obviate reason. Indeed, as this morality is founded upon empathy, it requires reason to adjudicate the appropriate action for the particularities of a situation. For example, if a child has misbehaved, there is a conflict between wishing to do them no harm, and doing appropriate harm to ensure that they learn to behave better. Confiscating their favourite toys may do them harm in the short-term, but in the long-term it will do them good by socializing them adequately. The adult must ask themselves how they would want to be treated if they were the child, not simply how they would want to be treated in general. Our reason serves to guide our empathy.

It is essential for the long-term stability of any society to have an objective source of morality. Subjective morality is at best a negotiation within a society, and at worst a negotiation within the individual. In the case of society at large, the subjective negotiation of morality can degenerate into the tyranny of the majority, in which in-group preferences and in-group grievances obviate the individual rights of the out-group, as was seen in Nazi Germany and Communist States. Within the individual, the negotiation can have a similar outcome on an individual level, in which the individual respects only their own rights and desires. Even if god is real, in the Western World, god is dead in the metaphorical sense that Nietzche intended. Therefore, we must look to an objective source of morality such as this to guide us away from moral degeneration.

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