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I have been very busy lately and then the call from OFSTED, the government school inspectorate, came this week, I ended up camped at work for 3 days. It’s over now. To get the ball rolling again is a guest post from ML Candelario. It is interesting toying with the idea of moral nihilism, which all depends on how you define objective or ontic reality. Anyway, over to Cendelario (thanks to him for this piece):

What Morality Means

the purpose of this essay

In everyday discussions about morality, we often conflate two distinct ideas: meaningfulness and moral behavior. The long-held notion is that when Person X behaves in a moral way, meaningfulness is thus imparted to Person X’s life. That is, the commonsense treatment of morality is that it necessarily matters—that it is more meaningful to behave in moral ways. I think there is a clear reason for this commonsense idea, and this short essay will focus on some reasons behind our intuitions regarding the conflation of meaning and morality.

I must answer two specific questions, that I can see, in order for this paper to be successful. The first is: How can an atheistic life be meaningful. The second question is: What is an atheist’s moral motivation. In other words, I want to provide a framework for the reader to understand that one’s life can be meaningful if theism is false, and also that there is sufficient reason for atheists to act morally.

meaningfulness in an atheistic framework

The common claim from theists is that atheism leads to meaninglessness, that if atheism were true then life would have no meaning. To that end, I agree—if we’re discussing what theists would consider ultimate or universal meaning. Eventually, I will die. So too will everyone I’ve ever met or loved. Let’s say I become some kind of famous writer (unlikely, but bear with me). Even in that case, one day surely all physical copies of my writings will have perished, and surely one day even the eBooks will be gone. Some day in the future, all memory of my life will have vanished. So yes, there is no ultimate meaning to anything, since that fate awaits all of us and all of the humans that come after us. Even if one tried to subvert what appears to be the pointlessness of our existence by insisting that our place as humans is within some larger Story of Humanity or Story of Life—and that this engulfing narrative gives meaning to our lives as, essentially, cognizant cogs in the human machine—one would still be met with the notion of universal heat death. That is, even if we could find solace in our place within an overarching narrative, the fact is that eventually all life will end—the universe either will implode in a Big Crunch or else will continue to expand until nothing can exist. Everything ends, and so in that sense there is no overarching, lasting narrative that an atheist can fit himself into in the sense of the overarching narrative of theists.

But I submit that our personal situations can be much less dire than this picture implies. I am, as the theist might rightly accuse me of being, a nominalist about universal/objective meaning. I don’t even know what such a “meaning” would look like. This is, most basically, because I hold that all experiences are by necessity subjective experiences. When I see a blue sky, it is I who sees the blue sky. I am having that experience, and I experience it in a particular, subjective way. Meaning seems to me analogous to a sensory experience—in fact, I think it evident that many instances of people referring to “meaningfulness” is actually them referring to a certain cerebral/chemical state that makes them feel a certain way (i.e. content, at peace, etc.). And so, I counter to the theist, even if God exists and has some ultimate plan for my life, I still experience that as subjective meaning—it is still I who experiences the feeling of meaningfulness. I don’t know what a universal, objective instance of meaning would look like—and thus I don’t know exactly what it is the theist claims I cannot have as an atheist—except to say that God’s existing as over-and-above the universe necessitates His own meaning as being somehow “bigger” than mine. But if this is what the theist means, he is simply talking about a very large subjective meaning and not an objective or universal meaning at all!

In personal debate with theists, I have come across one particular objection that must be dealt with before I continue—namely, the objection that goes something like this: “how can something not ‘matter’ or be ‘meaningful’ to the universe, and yet it is ‘meaningful’ and ‘matters’ to you—a seemingly random product of the universe?” Now, I think this objection is seriously flawed because it relies on the fallacy of mistaking the part for the whole. It has been shown that talk of parts-of-objects cannot be automatically assumed to make any sort of statement on the whole-of-the-object. For example, I can say that the sky is blue—but this does not in any way logically imply that the universe is blue, even though we certainly hold that the sky is in fact a part of the universe. I could also say that I am a human being, and yet the universe is not logically implied to be a human being. Or I could say that such-and-such plank of wood on a certain ship is from Madagascar, but this does not imply that the entire ship is from Madagascar. Similarly, I do not see how claiming that my children matter to me or that they provide a certain amount of meaning to my life implies that they matter to the universe or provide an equitable amount of meaning to the universe. In this way, it seems that the theists’ objection has led us back to thinking of meaningfulness as being inherently a subjective experience.

how morality can lead to meaning in an atheistic framework

The primary objection to that last paragraph is clear: What if [doing X immoral act] is a meaningful experience to me, subjectively? It is easy to see how one could be left with the idea that everything is permissible. In fact, Galen Strawson’s essay The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility presents a strong argument for the idea that if, as it is widely held, determinism obtains, then commonsense notions of moral responsibility must be jettisoned. It would be tempting to use his essay as evidence that determinism in fact does not obtain (in an effort to keep our commonsense notions of moral responsibility), and yet Derk Pereboom argues in his book Living Without Free Will that even if we reject determinism, still we must get rid of our intuitions about moral responsibility. According to Pereboom, no matter what the situation is like in regard to free will vs. determinism, we still cannot be considered ultimately morally responsible!

How, then, do we live? Pereboom argues, and I agree, that we ought to drop our ideas of praise and blame (and thus the penal system built on retributive justice) and swap them out with a penal system built on notions of rehabilitative justice. This, statistically, has the curious result of lower recidivism rates. And yet a lingering problem persists—how can we hold ourselves accountable within a societal framework when there is seemingly no universal moral law to which to appeal? I think the answer is embedded in the question. We as a species have evolved in societies. We do not seem to function as well on our own as rogue agents. And therefore, since societal living provides a higher quality of life, our aim ought to be to improve societal conditions and uphold the stability of society. Crucially, I must insert that it seems exceedingly evident that inequality is inherently unstable. Just as radioactive elements naturally seek an equilibrium, so too societies naturally seek an equilibrium of equal treatment. If a society is built upon inherent inequality and oppression, that society will gradually tend toward disorder and unrest. And so, rather than stifling civil rights movements as being contrary-to-social-stability, we ought to join civil rights movements and fix the system that led to the unrest in the first place. This is a crucial point because up until now I have been essentially arguing for a hodge-podge moral system. That is, I think moral behavior is justified in three ways: egoism, rational utilitarianism, and social contract theory. It feels better for me to behave morally (egoism); behaving morally brings about the best outcome for the most people (rational utilitarianism); and our moral intuitions are due to what holds society together, since we have evolved as social creatures and need each other to survive (social contract theory). Without the caveat that inequality-laden societies are inherently unstable, my preferred moral system would suggest that any progressive movement (think Gandhi or MLK, Jr.) ought to be stifled as a threat to the social order. I do not think we ought to stifle such movements, as it is not the social order that ought to be upheld, but rather social stability itself—and the latter is not necessarily best embodied by the former. In fact, if what I am saying holds any truth, we ought to support and champion these causes as heralds of a better, more equal, and thus more stable society.

This is all well and good from a societal perspective, but what we want to deal with is really more of a personal perspective. To that end, here is the real point to this essay: I do think moral actions impart meaning to one’s life, just as I discussed in the beginning of this article, and just as the theist might claim. The difference, I think, between me and the theist is in the way that I think morality imparts meaning onto one’s life. I think it exceedingly evident that the universe is at best an amoral place. As Werner Herzog has said, “When I look into the faces of… bears… I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Indeed, much of the “natural world” seems exceedingly cruel and uncaring. Even amongst humans (who often talk of themselves, as I just did, as if they are somehow separate from nature), cruelty abounds. Indifference abounds. And so I see no evidence of any real, objective, universal morality governing the universe. However, this does not lead me to fall into moral nihilism from a subjective perspective. Rather, I view moral living as the Ultimate Rebellion against a universe that is absurd, amoral, and indifferent. On one hand, it is probably true that the empathy that drives us toward moral behavior is a product of our evolution and is the glue that holds together the societies in which we thrive—and therefore it is ultimately egoistic. On the other hand, our empathy—though a product of the universe—drives us to act in ways that seem anomalous to the way in which the universe normally functions.

To summarize, moral acts are small rebellions against a universe that seems largely absurd and at best amoral, and this rebellion makes our lives different, separates us from the milieu of nature, and gives our brief lives meaningfulness. For a more coherent, cohesive discussion about how evolution can explain our moral nature and the formation of societies, see Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is. And before it is objected that theism puts one in a more consistent position to argue for moral behavior, I’d suggest reading Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s book Morality Without God for a discussion on how theists use the same kinds of reasoning when making moral choices and solving moral quandaries in their everyday lives. I suppose one might call my ramblings a sort of Rational Empathic Utilitarianism, if one needs a name for it. Another name might be Pragmatic Moral Nihilism.

My next article for A Tippling Philosopher will be on problems I find within the popular theistic moral schemas—and why I think the evidence points to nihilism regarding universal, objective moral laws. Once one accepts the lack of a universal moral law, I think my system is a tenable one for pragmatic moral behavior.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...