Let Go of Divine Morality


I sometimes hear people say that if a person believes that morality is relative to people, he or she cannot believe that any values exist or that anything is better than anything else. They claim that subjective values imply that all moral decisions are equally valid and should be tolerated. For whatever reason, I have never bothered to investigate this claim. I suppose that I thought that such talk was meant to apply only to certain positions of relativism instead of moral subjectivity as a whole or that I’d just never been exposed to the reasoning behind them. In any case, I was on a message board recently and the topic was that author Dinesh D’Souza commented that atheists, such as Virginia Tech professor Richard Dawkins, have been “nowhere to be found” in public showings of mourning following the April 2007 shooting massacre at that university. (What does D’Souza expect, someone to say, “This was bad and by the way, God doesn’t exist”?) Dawkins responded at length that his lack of faith certainly did not reduce how he was affected by the tragedy or how much he participated in mourning. More relevant to this article, he also said, “I believe this young man [the shooter] was both sick and vicious, that his actions were both heinous and the result of a phenomenon that we must try to understand so that we can prevent it in the future.” A poster on the message board I frequent commented,


But Mr. Atheist, who are you to call him sick and vicious? If there is no god and thus no absolute moral standard, then morality is relative. What’s right for you might not necessarily be right for him [the shooter]. He thought the murders would result in the greater good of mankind, namely to put a stop to the mistreatment of “the weak and defenseless” people like himself. How can you say he was wrong for doing what he did?


I responded that Dawkins is a person with a mind and no further qualifications are required to make a moral judgment. Apparently to him, the shootings were sick and vicious. That poster then said,


If morality is relative, then you shouldn’t speak negatively about someone else’s moral behavior. If you do, then you’re claiming that YOUR moral standard of behavior is more RIGHT than theirs. But that cannot be the case unless there is an absolute standard by which to compare the two.


When I read that, I thought, “Is that what people are thinking when they make that claim?” Does anyone else see the problem with it? Let’s try to put his words into argument form to evaluate them better:


1. If a person criticizes someone else’s morals, he thinks that his own morality is more right.

2. If morality is relative, nothing can be more right than anything else.

3. A person should not think that something is more right than something else when it is not.

4. Therefore, if morality is relative, one should not criticize another person’s morals.


While I don’t have any major disagreements with the truth of the premises, the argument is invalid. Why? The rightness in premise 1 is subjective and the rightness in premise 2 is objective. Compare it to this: “Richard thinks that blue is prettier than gray. There is no absolute standard that can define blue to be prettier than gray. Therefore, Richard shouldn’t say that blue is prettier than gray.” See the absurdity? If one recognizes that prettiness is relative in the first place, it is ridiculous to demand a viewpoint conform to an absolute standard. Similarly, if one recognizes that morality is relative, even just for argument’s sake, why insist the use of an absolute standard? An absolute standard can’t even exist, much less be applied, if morality is relative. All of this shows the poster’s fundamental lack of understanding of the concept of relative morality; he simply refuses to drop his religious assumptions about the nature of goodness. He needs to let go of divine morality. Until he drops the assumptions, he has no chance at knowing real goodness.


He also asserts that “you have a conscience written on your heart that tells you what is absolutely right or wrong.” I take this to mean that he believes that God defines what is good. This brings up the classic dilemma of “Is something good because God defines it so, or does God define something as good because it actually is?” Either way you look at it, goodness cannot come from God. Hypothetically, God could descend from the heavens and declare that punching babies in the face is good. Still, you would know that such an act would not be very good in actuality. On the other hand, if God simply reports to us what is good, it is possible to know goodness without listening to God at all, which undermines the whole point. Again, I think the poster needs to let go of divine morality. Replace religious assumptions with knowledge of values and the reality of causality, and see how life can improve.