Response to Rusty on Morality

Rusty from New Covenant has replied to my post on the religious right lowering its expectations, but more specifically to a comment I made at the end. I ended the post by saying, "The culture war isn't going well for the religious right. Another victory for true decency." Rusty responds:

True decency?

Why is it that Darwinists continue to hold on to ideas such as decency, morality, justice, and rights? Actually, what I should ask is: Why do inconsistent Darwinists continue to hold on to such ideas?

Let me say a couple of things. First, I hate the term "darwinist". I am no more a "darwinist" than I am an "einsteinist" or a "feynmanist". I have no idea how or why this term caught on among the anti-evolution crowd, but I find it very annoying. I also find "evolutionist" annoying. We wouldn't speak of a "gravityist" or a "big bangist". Evolution is not an "ism", it's a theory, and just like every other scientific theory, it has a discrete task - to explain a specific set of facts. And herein lies the reason why Rusty reacts the way he does. He thinks evolution is a "worldview", a term we hear a lot but which simply doesn't apply here.

Evolution is the theory that modern life on earth is derived from a common ancestor through descent with modification. It explains the facts of biodiversity, biostratigraphy, comparative anatomy, and so forth. That's it. It doesn't explain the origin of the universe, nor does it attempt to. It doesn't explain why there's "order" instead of chaos, nor does it attempt to. It neither prescribes nor proscribes human behavior; at best it might help DEscribe some aspects of human behavior, but even there I think it's easy to substitute wishful thinking or assumption for a well thought out explanation. It doesn't tell us whether there is a god or not, it doesn't tell us what, if anything, will happen to us when we die. Nor does it attempt to. Thus Rusty is simply wrong when he declares that I am "inconsistent" because I accept evolution and also take moral positions, any more than I'm being inconsistent in accepting evolution and taking a position on what type of offense is most effective in basketball - the subjects just aren't related.

Sure there have been attempts to pull moral lessons by inference from evolutionary biology. I've never found such attempts to be very compelling, and evolution is not the basis for any moral statement I make. Which means we're really left with the argument that if you can't say "God says so", you can't make moral statements. This argument strikes me as rather silly, not least because the mere act of saying "God says so" does not mean that God, in fact, said so. Lots of people throughout history have claimed that this God or that God has declared a given moral code, but those moral codes, beyond the few obvious rules that are common to all moral systems including non-theistic ones, can differ rather dramatically. I have no doubt that Rusty would reject the "God says so" arguments made by every other religion but his own, but that only leaves him open to the same charge from the Muslim, the Hindu or the Zoroastrian that he levels at me - that he has rejected God's absolute moral truth and therefore left himself unable to know the difference between right and wrong.

At best, the argument from morality is not an argument for the existence of God but an argument for why God should exist (and beyond that, I would argue that it is really only an argument for why a specific God should exist - as a deist I believe the universe was created, but it does not follow from that axiom that therefore that creator cares or even knows about human behavior). Perhaps it would be nice if we had a simple list of rules to tell us what was good and what was evil, but that doesn't mean there is one. I know that the argument that without a God we can't come up with a completely objective list of rules sounds compelling, but think about it...if that's the case, and there either is no God (the atheist position) or there is no God who concerns himself with the fate or actions of human beings (my position), we still have to live our lives, don't we? We still exist on this planet with other people and we still have to find some way of drawing boundaries on behavior to insure that we survive, both individually and collectively. We still have to use our minds to come up with more or less formal ways of determining what is moral and immoral, how we should behave toward our fellow human beings, what the responsibilities of being part of a group are and how those responsibilites relate to what we should and shouldn't do in various situations.

The basis for my own moral reasoning is the law of reciprocity. Jesus called it the golden rule. It is found in every single religious tradition and in every non-theistic system of ethics as well. It is as close to an objective and universal principle as I have ever found and it seems like a good place to start. So why do I say that gay marriage, for example, is a victory for true decency? Because it offers to others what we treasure for ourselves - the right to live our lives free of the restrictions placed on us by others so long as we don't hurt someone else through our actions. I don't think it's ethical to try to control someone else's life and use legal coercion to force them to conform to our ideas of how they should live their life unless there is a compelling reason to do so. And for me, the only truly compelling reason for such coercion is to prevent them from violating the self-determination of another person or to prevent them from inflicting direct harm. You have no more right to force someone else to only be with members of the opposite sex than they have to force you to only be with members of the same sex. They don't tell you how to live your life, you shouldn't tell them how to live theirs. More specifically, you are free to tell them all you want - but you don't get to make that decision, they do.

I start from the simple axiom that I own myself, that my life belongs to me and not to someone else. And by giving others that same freedom to live their lives, I preserve it for myself. The decent society, in my view, is the one in which people are free to live their lives as they see fit so long as their actions don't deprive another of the same freedom. And I don't think that argument is any less compelling because I can't say "God says so" at the end of it.


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