April 21st, 2010


Subjective Morality

I’ve had a thought rumbling around in my head in recent months – a product of one of my occasional and innumerable hypothetical debates with theists – which a post this morning on the atheist community prompted me to begin to formulate more textually.

It runs along similar lines to a lot of my thoughts on this topic (which you can view as pedantry, consistency or some combination thereof), and deals with the question of secular morality versus theistic morality.

One of the charges which we atheists frequently have leveled against us is that, in the absence of any kind of supreme being to dictate and arbitrate morality, there can be no true morality, and that as such, we atheists must by our very nature be amoral beings. These charges then often become wild and fanciful, assigning to us a desire to rape, murder and steal at whim, since apparently in the minds of these christians, taking part in these sorts activities is a good path to a happy and fulfilling life (which invokes the usual question of whether these are the sorts of things THEY would like to be doing, but feel restrained from indulging in merely because of their fear of hell, and furthermore what that says about them).

This has always rung somewhat hollow to me, as it may not surprise you to learn, and one of various reasons why has lately become clear to me.

If you or I (or indeed some third party not taking part in this discussion) somehow had the ability to drown the entire world, and decided, because we were displeased with the general moral character of the peoples of the world, to go ahead and do so (whether or not we decided to spare a small family of middle easterners in the process), we would be guilty of an unspeakable evil. The christian god is purported, in christian (and indeed Jewish, and I presume Islamic) mythology to have done precisely this and precisely for these reasons. He, however, is reckoned by the proponents of this mythology, to have been good for having done so.

The reason behind this has nothing to do with the act itself, but rather the person (or entity or what have you) doing it. Any and all acts performed by this being – even if they would be evil if performed by anyone else -–are automatically rendered “good” simply because of who he is. So goes the mythology, anyways. If this were true, then it seems to me that morality becomes entirely meaningless; situational and subjective. The term “good” holds no more meaning, in that an evil act can be “good” simply because of the person (entity, whatever) performing it.

In a world without such an entity to distort and deform morality, we’re all on a level playing field, and can make meaningful moral judgements based upon whether or not our acts are selfish, destructive or harmful to those around us.

In a world with such a being, morality is just a hodge-podge of personal biases and whims of an obviously-deranged and capricious monster, who rules the universe in an indifferent and haphazard manner, while claiming absolute moral authority over everything while doing so.

Christians ask me how we can have true morality without their second-hand, bronze age, middle eastern tribal deity. I ask them in return: How could we have true morality WITH such an entity?

Allow me to share a dream with you

There’s a dream I have been chasing – in an admittedly often fairly passive way – for many a year now.

In fact, it goes so far back, the details are now in large part lost to me. It was first conceived of about ten years back, and I cannot now tell you what it was that inspired in me this sublime vision, but the specifics of the vision are as plain to me now as they were then. Let me share this vision with you, so that you might bask in its glory and wonder.

Envision: Four people, standing at arms length from one another, all in a row, on a crowded city street. All four of them are dressed in costumes. Terrible costumes. The sort of terrible costumes that people who are invited to a sci-fi-themed costume party and who have no interest in or knowledge of sci-fi might create. We’re talking cardboard box robots with tinfoil antennae here.

As one, the four of them produce books. Each of them has a different book. Each of them is a Shakespearean play. And as one, each of them begins to put on a one-person performance of their respective plays.

These are not “good” performances per se; they are not acted out in any specific way, beyond perhaps different characters being given different voices (to the extent that any of the participants are capable of mastering some thirty or so different voices, or indeed willing to try to do so). The result is a spectacular cacophony of 16h century English literature which arrests the attention of one and all who bear witness to this brazen display of madness.

At their feet, there is a sign. The sign reads “The Sci-Fi Shakespeare Cavalcade. Donations welcome”. Set next to the sign is a bucket, such as one might fill with change.

The change, in my mind, is a bonus, and it is almost a certainty that the monetary compensation – especially when divided four ways – would be unequal to the effort which would go into the work. The value of the spectacle, however, would be beyond that which could be measured in cash or words.

Naturally, we would wish to have this recorded, in part or in full. YouTube would need to be notified of these proceedings, of course, in the form of a series of uploads.

Over the years, I have occasionally taken this dream down from the dusty shelves of my mind and polished it up a bit, paraded it about my social circle and shown it off. Over and over again, I’ve had a handful of people who expressed an interest in taking part, and indeed, at one point early on, there were three would-be collaborators who seemed earnest enough that I spent the money on a busking permit which would insulate us from hassles by “the man”. Sadly, their dedication was not the equal of my own, on the long run, and it never came to pass.

This summer, I have decided I would once again like to make the attempt. And this summer, I am putting it out there, beyond the mere confines of my social circle, to see who else would like to participate in this profound folly. Indeed, I suspect I may end up posting this to the livejournal Vancouver community and see if there’s anyone out there who finds this as titillating a notion as I do.

So! What say you, gentle readers? Do you have what it takes? And by this, I mean primarily “too much time on your hands, and a lack of capacity for shame”? If so, we could accomplish something altogether remarkable together.