Picture an aquarium full of only dirt and rocks.
Now imagine that this represents the sum total of reality. There is no mind beyond the walls of that aquarium, no watching eyes, nothing. Life is utterly absent within and without. There is only the stuff of matter.
Now suppose someone were to ask if the aquarium contained morality. Is it in there? If so, where might it be found? Under a rock? Hidden deep in the dirt? Perhaps floating about in the air?
Search as one might, digging here and there, morality would not be found. It is nowhere.
But now imagine a creature suddenly forming in some mysterious, almost ineffable way. It is a slithering thing, long and inhuman, devoid of consciousness.
Might morality be found in the aquarium now? Nothing has fundamentally changed, save for the creeping creature, and that changes nothing. Morality is still absent.
Picture another scene. Suppose the slithering creature splits into other similar creatures, ones that in turn morph and change into other creatures. Imagine as well plants suddenly sprouting up. Envision rain beginning to fall and entire colonies of scurrying critters forming, ducking into holes and climbing trees.
The aquarium is now teeming with life.
Peering through the glass wall, we see that these creatures do not get along very well. They bite and kill, devouring one another not only for food, but because it is in their nature. Those that are stronger tend to prevail. Those that are weaker fall by the wayside.
None of these actions could be called into question, however, as if some kind of moral standard is being upset. The standard is nowhere to be found. The actions of these violent creatures are just actions. In a very real sense, all their biting and clawing is no more moral than rain hitting a rock.
But now imagine a new scene. Picture in your mind a curious shift in evolution, whereby the once slithering creatures acquire two legs, stand upright, and come to possess brains capable of rational thought. They are conscious beings. We might just go ahead and call them humans.
With this new context before us consider again the question of morality. Would it be fair to say that morality exists?
This is the atheist’s dilemma.
There are plenty of atheists who will readily concede that objective morality does not exist, that it is at best an illusion- a mere hunch rooted in nothing, ultimately.
Consider the words of Michael Ruse in this respect,
“Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will—or in the metaphorical roots of evolution or any other part of the framework of the Universe. In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance.… Unlike Macbeth’s dagger, ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.” (1)
None of this is to suggest, however, that atheists do not believe in morality in some sense. They do, but often only in a conventional sense.
Return again to the aquarium full of humans. Where does the morality exist? The answer: only in the brains of people.
Here one might note that morality functions at the level of conscious thought. If Joe human feels like X is bad, then he will feel compelled to say that it is morally objectionable.
In this regard, one could say that the concept of morality is tied to preferences- preferences that would be tied to genetic disposition, parental upbringing, societal influences and the like. None of this is to suggest that there can’t be rational discourse, of course. The humans are capable of it. In this respect, Joe human may think to himself, “I don’t like it when people hit me with baseball bats. Therefore, I’m interested in upholding some kind of cultural contract, whereby society at large deems hitting others with baseball bats as inappropriate. We’ll call this wrong.”
From here it is not hard to imagine culture, assuming enough people agree with Joe human’s baseball bat preferences, forming laws and instituting sanctioned forces (like policemen) to keep such preferences in check. If we imagine a vast matrix of codes and institutionalized preferences, we might begin to picture nations and governments and societies and sub-societies forming within the aquarium.
Here is where the concept of morality ultimately takes root. It is a conventional kind of morality- relative, man-made, subjective.
Now there are certainly a number of atheists who bang their head against the wall of ethics, seeking to objectify morality, but most admit that it is a fool’s quest. And we can surely see why. If at the end of the day morality only exists in the brains of conscious creatures, and if it functions in accordance with one’s desires, or preferences, or natural repulsions/pleasures, it cannot be anything more than subjective. One brain might find pleasure ruling over a group of people harshly, while another simply wants to indulge in the delights of psychedelic drugs.
Here someone may want to cry out, “But it is so obviously wrong for a dictator to mistreat the masses! Such actions are harmful! That has to be wrong!”
But why, really?
One brain may feel quite convinced that such actions are bad. No argument there. But so what? Any appeal to some kind of reason, even an explanation rooted in scientific fact (like that of physical health or perhaps even well-being), falls on the rocks of preferences. Why care about health or collective well-being, after all? The rocks and dirt certainly don’t.
Just imagine two people standing in the aquarium. One has all kinds of altruistic ideals. The other does not. Picture the altruistic man saying to the other, “You should be nice, since being nice is good. I mean really, it’s obviously good- objectively good! Can’t you see? And just think of it! We can picture a wonderful society where everyone gets along and suffering becomes next to non-existent. That is surely a better world! And if better then surely it is a morally good world?”
The other man, who happens to be holding a club behind his back, thinks, “Hmm... obviously good, huh? Well, I can’t say that I’m a fan of that idea hanging around. Seeing how you think such objective morality is a fact, and I suppose it might seem like a fact in your brain, let me... ‘CRACK!’ Ah, there we go! Objective morality gone! Now that my brain is the only one here, and it doesn’t agree with that notion of being nice, my view is the objectively true view now. And why not, right?”
Indeed. Why not?
In this vein, consider the horrifying words of Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer. Once when interviewed as to why he committed such terribly crimes, he said,
“Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’….I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me—after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.” (2)
The reality is that if we are living in an aquarium full of only rocks and dirt, morality must be grounded in either the rocks and dirt or in human preferences. But in both cases, they lead to the edge of a cliff, an ethical cul-de-sac, a mirage.
This means that the game of ethics in a godless world is really just that- a game. It’s a contest of preferences, a chess match where each person's ideal jockeys for acceptance. Over here is a group that believes X is wrong. Over here is another group. They think that X is permissible. They may point their fingers at one another and shout and argue with great fervor, claiming that other is wrong, but what is really going on? It’s simply a struggle to gain ascendency; they want their preference to come out on top.
Think about this in our world. Everyone is trying to win the favor of the majority so that they can “canonize” their preferences, or institutionalize their beliefs and establish laws, which appears to lend credence to their actions. A statute stamped with a government’s seal of approval may accomplish something by way of establishing a law, but the law can shift at a moment’s notice. All it takes is another majority, or a more powerful minority to change things.
There is another aspect to the game.
Part of the game includes recognizing that who we are as human beings is an accident, that we are merely blips on the radar of history- blips that are neither static, nor correct, in any serious sense. We are on a continuum, whereby the very concept of humanity is fluid.
This helps explain the debate over sexual preferences. We can be what we want to be. And why not? Any perceived boundaries to our nature, or our physical makeup, or our gender are hardly concrete. What is a sexual organ, after all? It’s just something that I happen to have. It is not like I ought have it. It’s not like it means a whole lot. In a world of radical flux- one where we can look over our shoulder at our slithering ancestors or look to the future where we could be nearly anything- the supposition of oughtness is an illusion. Let us be whatever we want! And who is to say otherwise? The rocks and dirt don’t care. And if you do, why should I take your frown seriously?
If there is no outside script defining reality, then the task of writing the script falls solely in our hands.
This is the strange dilemma facing those living in this particular aquarium. They feel inexorably compelled to point their fingers and exclaim that such and such is wrong... or right! But when they do so, they’re acting as if some kind of moral standard has been genuinely disrupted, or that some kind of objective standard should be upheld. This is very strange and not a little ironic.
Just imagine all of the creatures standing in a big circle, fingers pointed squarely at each other, a moral complaint dangling off the tip of their tongues. But then all of them, after hearing the complaint, say in unison:
“In order for me to take seriously your complaint, I need to take seriously the conditions that must exist in order for me to take seriously your complaint. One of those necessary conditions would include the existence of a binding moral standard- or an objective moral standard. However, since life in this particular aquarium cannot account for that condition, your moral complaint doesn’t make sense. It’s incoherent.”
What a strange game.
(1) Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, edited by James E. Huchingson, page 310.
(2) Cited in “Atheists and the Quest for Objective Morality,” by Chad Meister. Original quote taken from: A statement by Ted Bundy, paraphrased and rewritten by Harry V. Jaffa, Homosexuality and the National Law (Claremont Institute of the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1990), 3–4.