Ground Rules for Behavior?
In recent years I have found much entertainment and thought-provoking content on YouTube. As I explored some of the channels on the Web site, I became drawn to several in particular. A few of these were somewhat religious, such as VenomFangX and Sanctuary International Matrix, while others were more secular, such asThe Amazing Atheist (now TJ Kirk), Cult of Dusty, MrRepzion, Thunderf00t, and Sargon of Akkad. On many of their positions I agreed, on others I disagreed, but on one position that a few of these channels (namely, the secular “skeptic” channels) espoused, I could not find any common ground for compromise. This was on the contention that religion is false, so there is no God, which means that morality does not exist in any objective sense. TJ Kirk, for one, has been very vocal about this. He subscribes to this subjective morality—and yet he has vehemently condemned rapists and child molesters as human filth!
I cannot find fault with his conclusion about the rapists and child molesters, but it seems that Mr. Kirk is experiencing cognitive dissonance. If morality is wholly subjective, who is to say the actions of the rapist or child predator are immoral? Society? One could argue that society collectively bargains for its own morality, but again, who is to say the majority values are correct and that the values of those on the fringes (those represented in the behaviors of criminals for example) are incorrect? After all, this would be an example of the argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) logical fallacy (let it be known that I do not believe that “logical fallacies” are always unwaveringly false; there are exceptions to the rules and appropriate uses, but the individuals I’m referencing often use them as blanket-term indictments). These logical fallacies are often frowned upon very strongly by the same people that I first encountered, who espoused total subjective morality. On many occasions Kirk, Cult of Dusty, and MrRepzion—to name a few—have all decried the use of logical fallacies during rebuttals.
If we choose a more banal example than sex offenders, let us consider the hypersensitivity of extreme third-wave feminists, the ones who want to police language, culture, dress, media, thought, and every form of expression they can think of. How can we possibly criticize how absurd their views are if morality is completely subjective? How can TJ Kirk or Dusty contest that these feminists’ morality, which states that nearly everything is offensive, is incorrect? Perhaps for the extreme feminists, this subjective concept of morality is the correct concept for them, and for the rest of us, it is just a matter of a difference of opinion.
This trend of pushing subjective morality is not just online. I encountered a push for this ideology during several mandatory elective courses I had to take to earn my undergraduate degree.
As is so frequently the case, the United States foolishly follows in the failing footsteps of Europe. Nietzsche documented this same sort of phenomenon after World War II when religiosity fell into sharp decline and nihilism was growing. The problem with adopting a nihilistic view of morality and declaring that it is just a subjective matter is that if this is applied societally, it requires the removal of the foundation of the society. Even if at this point that foundation is only there as an homage to the past, removal of the foundation requires a watertight replacement to avoid societal collapse. What kind of morality will fill the void if morality derived from religion is removed in one fell swoop?
If a subjective code of morality is the answer, the logical conclusion is that no one has the right to contest the actions of others. If all it takes to be justified is a personal moral code, which is an intangible thing and therefore not provable, anyone can make the case that their actions were dictated by their personal beliefs. For example, I could make the case that “I can steal this car because I feel it is morally right to take whatever looks pleasing to me, and this Viper looks like it would be pleasing to have,” and that would be valid within this framework.
Likewise, what if I were a narcissist and I believed everyone should know what I think? If I decide to spray-paint buildings with my message, who is to stop me? If everything is subjective, it is right for me, so you cannot impose your morality on me, because no one has any definitive standards. If everything is subjective, no one can assert that their rights and morals are correct or whether or not theirs are being violated. At that point, all the rules and standards of our society become mere suggestions. The only way to prevent someone from doing wrong by you would be to smite them with more violence than they are using against you.
Our morals in the West have arguably been derived from Judeo-Christian tradition. The assertion has been that the edicts of this value system were an objective set of morals handed down from on high to Moses and the children of Israel; later Jesus distilled the vast majority of these edicts into the credo known today as the golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12, NIV).* This mantra is echoed in Buddhist teachings (Udanavarga 5:18), and it seems that this was likely the starting point for Stefan Molyneux when he wrote about Universally Preferable Behavior, which is the secular system of objective morality and ethics that he developed.
Although I am a Christian, I prefer a secular government and system of social ethics; if I choose to abide by something more to accommodate my religion in my personal life, that decision should be mine to make. This is because theocracy has never worked to benefit people or advance liberty. Even the kings of Israel often committed serious sins that provoked the anger of God at the time. My recurring fear that occurs every time I consider the prospect of theocratic government is that a charlatan claiming to come in the name of Jesus would seize power and use God’s name as a tool to subdue the people and enrich himself; either that, or it would be an extreme zealot, and heads would roll for minor crimes. I hope that it is abundantly clear I do not support an imposition of my religious values on society, but rejecting religion, God, or theocracy is not a justifiable reason to say that nothing derived from religious doctrines and tradition is of any value, especially if the result is that we are left with a system of no rules—subjective morality, which by its very nature is subject to the whims of the individual.
It is very possible—and, I argue, necessary—to have a society with values extracted from religious tradition without imposing religion on the citizens. For example, no one should be forced to worship or tithe, but if we extract the value of the golden rule, we can design an objective morality based on the founding religion of our society without imposing that religion. Returning to the example of the Viper, I may covet the car, but if the moral logic founding our laws is that “I cannot steal the Viper, because I do not want my vehicle stolen,” I cannot act upon the covet in my heart without dire legal consequences. Further, this provides a framework for an objective standard by which to evaluate the situation. The objective frame is that the rights of others must be respected, or legal consequences will follow.
This means that the graffiti on the building is objectively wrong, because it violates that rights of the owner of the building. Be it a small, private establishment or a chain store like Walmart, the owner has the right to maintain the building the way he/she wants. To spray-paint my message on the building is to undermine the right of the owner to have a building with only the message(s) he/she wants displayed outside.
It seems that the best implementation of the golden rule is to establish a rule of law where one person’s rights end where the next person’s rights begin. Again, this gives an objective code of ethics that is derived from the religious basis of our society without imposing the original religion on the people.
The biggest problem with replacing all sources of morality from a society at once with subjective morality is that it denies the importance of the Judeo-Christian past of our culture. If one is to replace anything, a suitable alternative must be ready, or the result will be chaos, not order. Someone who is in the market for a new car and sells his/her only vehicle before finding a replacement, and without investing the time to see if the local bus route will be a viable option, will live in chaos until another vehicle is obtained. That individual may even get fired if he/she cannot adapt quickly enough to not come in late to his/her job; then, jobless and without a car, he/she will experience true chaos. How much worse the chaos will be if as a society we destroy our foundation without a suitable replacement. As long as our culture has been developing (the earliest roots of Western culture are traceable to ancient Greece before Christendom took over Europe), it would be nigh impossible to remove more than 3,000 years of social evolution without destroying the current society. Without all that history upon which we have built our society, how would we know how to act in a socially acceptable manner? How would we interpret body language or vocal cues? And the same goes for our values. If we throw away everything, nothing means anything.
We can very successfully derive a code of law and societal rules that come from our traditions of Judeo-Christianity. To say that these traditions are false and therefore all the morality and ethics that have emerged from them is worthless is logically flawed at best. To then say that the alternative is subjective morality where everyone designs their own moral code is a terribly foolish idea. It would lead to chaos. If implemented in full effect, there would be a total collapse of the rule of law, because the laws would mean nothing. No one could say definitively that anyone else was in the wrong. Even if that did not happen, developing a new way of life out of nothing would be an extremely difficult task for most people, and it would likely lead to much mental distress. The past is invaluable because it gives us a plethora of examples of failures our forebears committed, as well as plenty of examples of their successes, which we can look at, build upon, and improve. Over thousands of years we have built our culture, and it cannot be allowed to be plunged into chaos because our society has moved from the religious impositions of the Catholic Church, through the Protestant Reformation, to Puritan Pilgrims, to Quakerism, to a more secular society that has derivations of these past ideologies our Founders dreamed up a framework for. The West and America specifically have the best standards of personal and religious liberty, and this should not be discarded in favor of false promises of improvement without the constraints of cultural standards.
*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Article Author: Samuel Conkovich
Samuel Conkovich writes from El Paso, Texas.