Campus Life ask a-theist

Is there an absolute right or wrong?

If not, why is the idea of right and wrong ingrained so deeply into our society?

Ask A-theist is a column by Aaron Scheinberg G, an atheist, and Stephanie Lam G, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion. This week, Stephanie chose the question. Send us the burning questions you have always wanted answered by an atheist or Christian (or both), and we’ll tackle them!

Q: Is there such a thing as absolute right and wrong? If so, where does it come from? If not, why is the idea of right and wrong engrained so deeply into our society, and in fact, almost every culture in the world?

Aaron’s answer:

All societies — even non-human ones — develop a code of behavior because any culture that didn’t condemn certain actions would quickly disintegrate. However, because we must make decisions every day about ambiguous situations, we often wish for reassurance and clarity beyond what our fellow humans can provide. The concept of absolute morality may placate our yearning for the external endorsement of our choices, but that doesn’t make it real.

In practice, we choose actions based on whether we believe they will help or hinder the realization of some larger goal. Secular morality is actually pretty straightforward: when choosing between two actions, we need only evaluate which choice better serves the goal of increasing human well-being and dignity.

Evidence-based reasoning enables that evaluation. Like science, the experience-based approach is imperfect but perpetually self-correcting. Because it cannot change and its authors didn’t share the same goal, the Bible has proven an unsuitable guide. For example, it doesn’t condemn all rape or slavery, except through creative interpretation clearly not intended by the authors and undertaken to conform to modern moral standards.

Why choose increasing humanity’s well-being as the goal to begin with? We choose it because we possess empathy. It’s part of my personality and yours too, shaped by nature and nurture alike. I have no desire to hurt others, and instead envision a world where suffering is minimal. In my experience, those who embrace love and eschew hate lead more contented lives.

Religious morality is ultimately goal-focused too; we just don’t know the goals ourselves — instead, ancient writing supposedly explains how we can do our part in a deity’s plan. But there are many biblical cases where Yahweh’s actions and commands directly conflict with the goal of increasing human well-being; for instance, when he exterminated mankind (including children, though sparing Noah’s ark). Would you willingly follow his orders if that increased suffering?

Literature, holy books included, may give us ideas for how to act morally, but those actions should be subject to reasoned analysis of whether they increase human well-being. Thankfully, most modern theists do just that and are comfortable disregarding the parts that are clearly incompatible with that goal. The alternative — blind attachment or submission to the moral judgments of others — is dangerous whether you’re a believer or not.

Stephanie’s reply:

Intrinsically, most people are born knowing some actions are right and some wrong. Murder is wrong. Cheating is wrong. The atheist might say this is the result of evolution and personal empathy; a Christian would say this is the nature of God reflected in his created man. This leaves us with a chicken-and-egg problem — did our ideas of morality originate from man, who then extrapolated to a perfect good in the form of God, or did God, as the perfect lawgiver, imbue his created man with sensitivity to his laws? I don’t think we can so easily dismiss either option. However, evidence-based empathic secular morality is far from a silver bullet. Nor is it superior to faith-based morality.

Without God and an absolute law, secular morality purportedly developed to benefit and preserve the species. Empathy advantageously arose along our evolutionary journey, but it has no more intrinsic value than walking on two legs or four. There’s nothing innately good or superior about it. We could have equivalently gone the route of lions, another social species, where takeover of a pride is accompanied by infanticide of all existing cubs to efficiently enable the new male to maximize progeny with females. Empathy is not the only solution that works. You can choose your goals based on empathy and human well-being, but absent external standards, you don’t have to — it’s a personal preference. And human well-being and dignity is nebulously-defined at best. How do you implement it without boundaries? Is infanticide always wrong? In a constantly changing worldview, there are no guarantees.

Perpetual change is not always good. Changing an answer is needed only if you were wrong initially. Taken in its entirety, I believe the Bible to be reliable. You cannot cherry-pick select passages from the Bible to represent the whole of Christianity. The Bible may be unchanging, but that does not mean Christians cannot also be self-correcting to its truths. Yes, some Christians twisted religion to justify slavery. But others, William Wilberforce and John Woolman, for example, devoted much of their lives to ending it. From their own writings, it was clear — it was not less faith that motivated them, but more. They saw a clear violation of many aspects of God’s law in slavery and took action. Clearly these men were deeply motivated and informed by, not in spite of, the living word of God.

mssand over 10 years ago

"Secular morality is actually pretty straightforward: when choosing between two actions, we need only evaluate which choice better serves the goal of increasing human well-being and dignity."

How does this not imply that there is an absolute right and absolute wrong?

Anonymous over 10 years ago

It is a purely humanistic point of view to say that the better choice is the one that serves the goal of increasing human well-being and dignity. What about the will of God? God is God and God calls the shots. If we, as mere humans, don't like or understand what God does or does not do, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not there is a God, and it doesn't negate the absolute morality against which God would have us measure our lives.

Mark Sloan over 10 years ago

Stephanie, from the standpoint of science, moral behavior is a set of biological and cultural adaptations selected for by a single selection force, the increased benefits of cooperation in groups moral behaviors produce. These moral behaviors can be motivated by our biology by emotions such as empathy and loyalty, or by cultural norms such as Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Would it be any comfort to know that this selection force is as intrinsic to physical reality as mathematics is? If your God created the universe and its dependent mathematics, then he created the strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups that we call moral behaviors.

That is, moral behaviors are strategies for overcoming the timeless, cross-species universal dilemma of how to gain the benefits of cooperation in groups without being exploited. They are called (somewhat misleadingly) altruistic cooperation strategies in game theory, are as intrinsic to our universe as 2 2 4, and are responsible for making us the incredibly successful social animals we are.

Mark Sloan over 10 years ago

That's "as intrinsic to our universe as 2 plus 2 equal 4". The 2 2 4 is a funny character translation problem.

Aaron over 10 years ago


Good question. The short answer: No, because Im not calling those goals (increasing well-being etc.) intrinsically "right". Instead I just explained why I and others have them.

Absolute right and wrong are unfortunately very nebulously defined terms and there wasn't space to really go into it.

Lets contrast the thought processes implied by an absolute morality vs. the alternative. The former would be: "I want to do the right thing. What is the right thing? Well, [some authority/my conscience] tells me that helping others is the right thing, so that's what I'll do." Within this framework, right must be externally defined, as far as i can tell. (Many nontheists disagree, Im open to rethinking it.)

The alternative is: "I want to help others, etc. What action should I take to achieve that? For ease of communication as a society exploring this topic, let's label actions consistent with our common goals as right."

So I do indeed choose my goals out of personal preference. We all do. (Including gods if they exist.) Even if you believe in an externally defined right and wrong, you are still making the choice (out of personal preference) to do one or the other.

I hope that clarifies things a bit.

Commenter #2:

You are proving my point. If you are willing to follow the will of God (as you interpret it) even when it harms others, then you are almost by definition a danger to society.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

That's right, Stephanie, we shouldn't cherry-pick the Bible.

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." - 1 Timothy 2:12