One of the great difficulties in this question lays in our definition of the word morality. Consulting several dictionaries, I found this common definition of morality: behavioral conformity to a standard of good. Given that definition, we could say the answer to our question is clearly yes; behavioral conformity to “a” standard of good is possible in the absence of a divine lawgiver. But this is hardly satisfactory, because how do we know that standard of good is correct, and not just some arbitrary standard?
I personally think that this is the root issue, and that a common goal for both teams in this debate is to be able to say that our moral precepts are not merely arbitrary. If moral precepts are arbitrary, why should we really follow them?
Using said definition of morality, and splitting the original question into two separate questions, the answers become much clearer:
1) Is behavioral conformity to a divine standard of good possible in the absence of a divine lawgiver?
a. The answer is of course no.
2) Is behavioral conformity to a non-divine standard of good possible in the absence of a divine lawgiver?
a. The answer is of course yes.
So my question is, which standard of good is less arbitrary? The divine standard, or the non-divine standard?
The theistic side maintains that if morality is not divinely given, then all we have is a bunch of people’s opinions on how to behave, which seems completely arbitrary. I share the theists’ conviction that morality must be more than arbitrary, and more than people’s opinions, but I disagree that a divine standard of good is the solution.
On the theistic view, God’s nature is that divine standard of good, therefore moral precepts are non-arbitrary because they conform to that standard. But a challenging question arises: why is God’s nature considered good? Is God’s nature good simply because it matches God’s nature, or is God’s nature good by some other standard of good? This, in essence, was Euthyphro’s dilemma 2400 years ago, and it continues to be a controversial issue. The dilemma has two “horns”, as they’re commonly called.
Starting with the second horn, if God’s nature is good by some other standard of good, then God’s nature is not actually the ultimate standard of good. For example, is God’s nature good because it promotes well-being? Then well-being is the ultimate standard of good. Is God’s nature good because it forbids murder? Then forbidding murder is the ultimate standard of good. If the ultimate standards of good are external to God’s nature, then we don’t need God on these matters.
And now on the first horn, if God’s nature is good by no external standard, but simply because it matches God’s nature, we’ve run into a circular definition. What is God’s nature? Good. What is good? That which matches God’s nature. What we end up with, on the first horn, is that it’s actually arbitrary to label God’s nature good, as all we’re really saying is that God’s nature is God’s nature, a meaningless statement. The consequence is that every other characteristic or behavior of God becomes good by definition, regardless of what those characteristics are, or how they affect the well-being of others. If God’s nature happens to accommodate murder and rape, then those things are arbitrarily good by definition. And any command that God gives as a result of his nature becomes arbitrarily good by definition, even a command to kill children.
Most Christians I’ve encountered find the second horn (that the ultimate standard of good is external to God) to be utterly incompatible with Christian theology, and so choose to do theological battle with the first horn’s problem of moral arbitrariness.
The way I see it, labeling anything as good is completely meaningless unless we have a context of what that thing is good for. For example, I could say that this microphone is good. But what do I mean by that? Is it good for combing my hair? Is it good for removing stains from my shirt? No, it’s actually quite bad at those things. Is it good for converting audio signals into electrical signals? Yes, it’s very good in that context! But to simply label this microphone as good, without a context of what it’s good for, is an arbitrary, meaningless statement. I believe the theistic worldview often unknowingly lacks this context when discussing theology. What is God’s nature good for? If we can’t answer that question, then good has lost any meaning.
This brings me to discussing my personal view of morality.
Lists of behavioral precepts have evolved dramatically throughout the millennia. What is the standard of good that the greater trajectory of human morality seems to be aimed at, revising itself toward? As best I can tell, it is the standard of things which are good for humans, ie human well-being, health, happiness, minimizing suffering, etc.
And, contrary to some theistic assertions, the things which are good/bad for humans are absolute facts, built into our biological makeup. For example,
1) Drinking bleach is not good for humans
2) Drinking water is good for humans
3) Murder is bad for humans
4) Saving a life is good for humans
5) Societies which permit theft/lying/slavery/rape/cocaine-use/etc are chaotically worse places for humans to live than societies which forbid such behavior.
6) Societies which encourage charity and generosity are better places for humans to live than societies which discourage such behavior.
7) A planet teeming with diverse life-forms is a better place for humans to live than a barren planet.
These are all absolute facts. Throughout history, we see that behavioral precepts which meet this standard of human well-being tend to stick around, while behavioral precepts which don’t meet this standard tend to get weeded out. Take the following list of behavioral precepts from the Bible:
· Don’t wear garments of two types of material
· Don’t groom the edges of your hair or beard
· Don’t have sex during menstruation
· Don’t consume blood, fat, pork, or certain aquatic animals
· Don’t cross dress
· Don’t have tattoos
· Put to death spiritual people of other belief systems, prostitutes, adulterers, those who curse their parents, girls who lie about virginity, those raped within city limits but not rescued, those who break the Sabbath, apostates, those who go near the tabernacle during transportation, those who strike their parents, those who ignore the verdict of a priest, and homosexuals.
What do all these behavioral precepts have in common? They all have little/no basis in terms of promoting human well-being. It turned out they weren’t really that good for humans. What else do all these behavioral precepts have in common? They’re all no longer in effect! They’ve been weeded out, regardless of what theological spin one attempts to place on it.
Now consider this additional list of behavioral precepts also found in the Bible:
· Love your neighbor
· Don’t murder
· Don’t lie
· Don’t steal
· Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
· Make peace
· Look after orphans and widows
· Help those in need
What do all these behavioral precepts have in common? They all have strong measurable basis in terms of promoting human well-being. What else do all these behavioral precepts have in common? They’re all still recognized, in effect in most advanced societies! Am I to believe that this is all purely coincidence, that promoting human well-being is not really what morality is aimed at?
And what standard of good could be less arbitrary for humans, than that which is good for humans? For me, appealing to a theoretical divine law-maker’s arbitrary nature makes morality more arbitrary and elusive than appealing to the biological, discoverable facts about what is good for humans. This gives meaning to the standard of good, because it answers what that standard is good for. The historical development of human behavioral precepts is pointing at this standard. This is a non-divine standard of good, which leads me to the conclusion that yes, morality is possible in the absence of a divine law-giver.