In the past week or two I've tried out and discarded a number of blogging ideas. I keep wanting to argue "I'm not bad or stupid for not believing," but there seems to be no way to argue that without sounding like I'm saying "you are bad or stupid for believing," and I don't think that. I'm not even interested in talking anybody else out of believing; lucky you, I say.
So today I'm going to talk about something else: morality, specifically the relationship between what is (facts) and what ought to be (moral imperatives). There's an old philosophical dilemma that you can never go from facts to moral imperatives because ought doesn't depend entirely on is. If the fact is that stealing your sandwich will make you mad at me, but I will also get a sandwich, what does that imply I should do? Nothing. It depends on which I want more, the sandwich or your good opinion.
Because of this many people think that morality is not possible for atheists; without God around to tell them what they ought to do, they have no choice but to drift along on autopilot, doing what they "feel like" or what is socially acceptable, but with no real reason why they don't just murder everyone they don't like.
I find that a little silly. If you are religious, take a moment to think about what you would want to do, if God told you he didn't care one way or another and was interested to see what you chose. Do you think you would very much enjoy betraying your friends, killing your parents, or hurting your children? Not so much. You care about those people and so you don't want to hurt them. You want to make them happy. In short, you love them. Most people do.
And if you take as given that you love others, and that most people do, then you can give some thought to what sort of life you should live that will be good for others as well as yourself. The details of that discernment rely entirely on what is: will this or that politician enact better laws, will this or that parenting method help my children, will this or that action make my friend happy. All it takes is one simple assumption -- that you care about other people -- and after that you can go with what is. It's also pretty fair to assume others also care about other people, and you can argue from their empathetic feelings to more specific moral rules: if you agree that other people feel as you do and are as important as you are, you should want their benefit, and look, X is to everyone's benefit.
But what's interesting me lately is the opposite question: is it possible to obtain ought without is?
I was discussing Pope Francis' new encyclical with someone, and we were arguing whether it had anything infallible in it. I pointed out that the pope is never infallible about science, just about faith and morals. So he might be wrong if he says "CO2 is causing global warming," but he should be preserved from error if he says "all Catholics should turn off their air conditioning." (He didn't actually say that.)
Well, that's the theory, but what would be the point of turning off the A/C if global warming isn't actually going on?
I tried comparing it to Humanae Vitae, which most conservative Catholics will agree is infallible, but I found myself asking for the first time, if some of Paul VI's facts are incorrect, does that affect his conclusions at all? Say, if birth control doesn't actually have the bad effects he says -- if it's discovered it strengthens marriages while NFP causes divorce, or whatever.
If he weren't pope, it would have to. You can't come up with good moral rules without good facts. This drives me crazy in many other debates, like the death penalty. If the death penalty does not actually reduce crime, that is vital information to know! And yet I've gone through some impressive debates on the topic where facts aren't even mentioned, except for quotes from popes.
Now the Catholic assumption is that even if the pope in question doesn't have access to all the facts, that's okay because the Holy Spirit will preserve him from error. It's also a Church teaching that if scientific facts appear to conflict with revealed truths, one is interpreting one or the other wrongly.
I think the Church does very well when it allows teachings to change based on new situations or newly discovered facts. Getting rid of the idea of limbo makes sense considering the previously-unknown fact that as many as a quarter of babies conceived are miscarried. That fact seems to make it much clearer that God wouldn't deprive that many people of heaven.
However, it makes for problems with the idea of infallibility every time a teaching is changed. There are some things that maybe could stand to be reformed by facts, but which won't be because Catholics believe the previous teachings were infallible the first time. The Pope and bishops can't say that owning a person is intrinsically evil or that the death penalty is never acceptable, because that would contradict prior teaching. So instead they have to put up with people dismissing the new teaching as "only prudential."
Another issue is that Catholics like to push inaccurate facts just to prop up the idea that the facts and faith will never contradict. Which is where we get the supposed fact that NFP-using couples never divorce. I dug up the study and what it actually said was that NFP-using couples are all currently married. Which is .... unsurprising, don't you think? If you're divorced, you presumably don't need to chart. There are also inaccurate facts passed around about various birth control methods, to the point that I never believe something from a Catholic source till I've double-checked on a secular source. Too often, they exaggerate or overstate things. Like how birth control pills are mutating fish -- apparently it's mostly other pollutants. How can we trust Catholic sources when they have a bad track record about reporting accurate facts, because the conclusion they want to prove is decided in advance? (Ditto for political groups with different foregone conclusions.)
So, if the Church is true, there are two paths to "ought" -- either to look at what is, take love of neighbor and the common good as given, and draw the best conclusions you can; or to follow what the Church says. Both should give the exact same answer, because truth, of course, comes from God. Certainly most Catholics I know, when asked about the moral law, will argue that it is for our benefit. They try to show that gay marriage or birth control or what-have-you is not good for us, but bad. God isn't just making up rules to test us, he's just the one with a birds-eye view of human nature telling us what will truly make us happy and what won't. If we were to investigate statistics about groups living out Catholic morals and groups abiding by other systems, we should find the Catholic one has the best results.
My question is, if you take the first path -- being, of course, as logical and impartial as you can, because that's the best way to find out facts -- will you really get the same answer as you do when you take the second? Does anyone want to predict what would happen?
I think I would predict that these two courses are not so different as all that, for one thing. Atheists are not, for the most part, living lives of utter dissolution; they don't cheat or steal or lie more than religious people do, because they have come to similar conclusions about morality from different sources. And that is what you should expect if you are a Catholic -- the moral law is rational so there's no reason they wouldn't be able to figure it out.
On the other hand, there are some points of divergence between what religious and non-religious people believe, particularly when it comes to sex, and it would be very interesting to see if there was one set of sexual ethics that can be proven to make a society flourish and the people in it live happy lives. Having not put serious study into it, I can't tell you what the answer would end up being, but it should be something we're able to find out.
And if we did figure it out, and non-religious people all adopted that, because they were happy to do what was necessary to love others and promote the common good? Well, I predict further that if there was any difference between it and Catholicism, it wouldn't change anyone's mind. Catholics would say, "But it can't be good, because those people do xyz and we think that is bad!" Atheists would ask, "Why is that bad?" and Catholics would respond, "Because God does not want you to. That's why."
And that's why Christians of every stripe will never admit that atheists can be moral. There are some moral laws in religion which you can't derive from reason, because they are specifically laws that relate to God. But as far as love of one's neighbor goes, I think you absolutely can go from is to ought and unbelievers do it all the time.
But ought without is? I don't think you can. I can't know if I ought to turn off my A/C until I know whether the earth is warming. I don't know if I ought to oppose gay marriage until I know if there is any harm to it. And I don't know if I ought to worship God until I know whether it is the case that he exists.
And that, if you've been following along, is why I can't possibly be moral. If I don't know what you know, I can't make the choices you think are right. And there I was thinking I wasn't going to be talking about whether my lack of belief makes me a bad person!