The Problem of Morality - Where Does It Come From?

In the atheism verses God debate, one thorny issue always remains for the atheist — how does the atheist define morality (right and wrong)? Without absolute standards, where does right and wrong come from? Consider the atheist’s favorite spokesman Richard Dawkins speaking on the question of morality.

“What defines your morality?” I asked with genuine curiosity.

There was an extended pause as Dawkins considered the question carefully. “Moral philosophic reasoning and a shifting zeitgeist.” He looked off and then continued. “We live in a society in which, nowadays, slavery is abominated, women are respected, children can’t be abused—all of which is different from previous centuries.” He leaned forward as he warmed to his subject.

At this point, perhaps a word of explanation is necessary. Zeitgeist is a German word meaning “spirit of the age.” Dawkins here refers to the prevailing moral climate or mood of a given place or time. We may observe that what constitutes moral or ethical behavior differs from one culture to another; indeed, it may even differ within a given culture. This is not in dispute. The question, rather, is this: should moral standards be based on the societal zeitgeist or should they look beyond it to something else?

I asked an obvious question: “As we speak of this shifting zeitgeist, how are we to determine who’s right? If we do not acknowledge some sort of external [standard], what is to prevent us from saying that the Muslim [extremists] aren’t right?”

“Yes, absolutely fascinating.” His response was immediate. “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right?

How do you obtain moral standards?

  1. Human thinking by changing times (zeitgeist).
  2. Outside human thought, i.e. God.

Atheists may think of morality as coming from instinct, majority of opinion, situationally up to each person, and so on, but as Dawkins admits any and all of those are subject to change. Thus it’s up to each individual to determine morality, and as Dawkins notes, by that logic who can say Hitler was wrong in exterminating six million Jews? No absolutes exist, so everything is moral … and immoral at the same time.

This does not imply atheists can’t be good people — they certainly can be. But it does mean they have no absolute standard for morality, and ultimately moral actions come down to situational ethics — what’s moral today could be immoral tomorrow, and vice versa — morality needs an absolute standard or it varies as each person or majority decide morality for themselves or the group. But in either case morality shifts.

Dawkins’ idea even suggesting Hitler could have been right displays the absurdity of the atheist position. Without an absolute moral compass, anything can be considered moral at one point, and not at another. In Dawkins’ atheist reality, it’s possible for Hitler’s actions to be correct, now or in the future. In other words, morals are not absolute at any time — the perfect storm of situational ethics.

Naturally, Dawkins’ suggestion about Hitler likely repulses most (all?) people, but while many atheists might attempt verbal twister to avoid the conclusion, Dawkins gets credit for not denying the logical conclusion of his atheist position and the lack of standard morality it spawns.

Why this position doesn’t bother him remains troubling.

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