Morality Is Always Personal

Open Letter to an Atheist Loved One

Dear Dan,

I certainly understand your concerns about the way some conservatives (who are often Christians, as you point out) have behaved during the worldwide pandemic.

At the same time, I don’t think Christians or conservatives have the corner on folly. All sides are guilty of it, and this whole thing has been downright unnerving. I should point out that a significant part of the problem is that every side often fails to take science seriously, either by underestimating it or overestimating it. As I said in my last letter, I strongly believe we should take science seriously (and I claimed that doing so might not actually be good news for atheism).

But back to your (legitimate) concerns about our current worldwide political polarization and unrest. I think you’re right: it’s not so much that political disagreement is at a new high (though maybe that’s true too). Rather, it’s that the Internet — and social media specifically — has made our political pluralism much more obvious.

Is Morality Subjective?

Political disagreement, of course, is often moral disagreement. After all, politics isn’t always merely about the means to reaching some already agreed-upon ends. Rather, it’s often about the ends themselves, about our ultimate goals or values, what counts as human flourishing or the good life. And these values are frequently moral values, about right and wrong, good and evil. Humans are bound together primarily by these values — and we’re divided by them just as much.

Now, it sounds like you and I both feel that moral values are matters of objective fact and not merely matters of personal opinion. That is, we have a deep sense that there are correct (and incorrect) answers to moral questions.

“Humans are bound together primarily by these values — and we’re divided by them just as much.”

Though I agree that morality doesn’t depend on our opinions or tastes, I actually don’t believe that morality is ultimately objective. That is, I think that moral values are fundamentally subjective, and even relative. Here’s why: because at the end of the day, all value — including moral value — depends on a valuer, a person doing the valuing. There is no such thing as value “out there” in the world apart from valuers.

To put it more provocatively, all value is, by its very nature, a matter of opinion or taste.

Morality Is Personal

Take an example. What makes gold valuable? The short answer is that we do. Gold doesn’t have some intrinsic property called “value,” akin to properties like atomic structure. If you were stranded on a desert island, about to die from exposure, thirst, and hunger, and you stumbled upon an old pirate chest full of gold bullion, would you be happy? Probably not. Most likely you’d actually be disappointed with a huge pile of gold. You don’t value the gold; the gold has no value for you, which is just to say that the gold has no value. The value of gold is person-relative, not in the gold itself.

Consider another thought experiment. Imagine that the entire cosmos — all of reality, if that’s different — were nothing but sand. Would there be values in that reality? Would it even make sense to ask whether in that version of reality the sand were valuable? (Try not to implicitly import yourself into the universe while you’re imagining it.)

Now, all this, I think, is just a consequence of what value is, and therefore applies to all value, including moral value. In a universe devoid of persons doing any valuing, there’s nothing valuable — whether of practical value, moral value, or aesthetic value. There is no value because there are no valuers, no persons.

And so, if I’m right, morality is subjective — it depends on the valuing subject, on the person doing the valuing. And just as in the gold case, moral value is not only subjective, but also relative — to the persons doing the valuing.

Morality then is ultimately personal. Or so it seems to me.

Eight Billion Moralities

Okay, so what? Well, if you’re right that there’s no God — that there’s no divine Person — then there are only human persons (currently around eight billion of them). Therefore, if value is subjective and only relative to persons, then morality is relative to humans only.

“Morality is subjective — it depends on the valuing subject, on the person doing the valuing.”

But more than that, just as I can’t value something for you, nor you for me, my moral values aren’t strictly speaking yours. Values just aren’t those kinds of things. We each have our own set of moral values; there is no single set. There’s no moral law (singular) but only moral laws (plural) — one for each person.

Of course, my moral standards need not be entirely different from yours. You and I can value many of the same things — we can have similar likes and dislikes, similar loves and hates. We can, for example, both love justice and equality. We value these things. We can also both hate injustice, poverty, and racism. These are things that neither of us values, or better, we negatively value them.

Why Your Morality?

The issue, then, is really about the source and authority of our moral values or standards, of our moral measuring sticks. Why your particular measuring stick? Where’d you get it and why should someone with a different measuring stick change to yours? (I have to answer the same questions.)

Is it because your moral values happen to be shared by the majority of humans? And if so, does the authority of this overarching standard — this “majority rules” standard — come from the fact that the majority holds it too? (You can see where that’s going.) And what if the majority radically changes or evolves, either socially, biologically, or both? Can the majority be wrong, or is “correct” equivalent to “what the majority likes”? Is it like being cool?

Or if the authority of moral standards isn’t ultimately derived from the fact that the majority holds them, is it ultimately derived from the mere fact that those who are in power hold them? Does “might make right”?

But notice that, if there is a God, then the moral standard can be simultaneously subjective and human-independent, and therefore not ultimately subject to the whims of human desires. To be sure, morality would still be ultimately subjective and person-relative, but God would be the Person, the valuing Subject. That is, morality would still be objective in the sense that it’s independent of humans.

If I Were an Atheist

Here’s my point. It seems to me that if atheism is true, then at the end of the day anything goes, morally speaking. I’m simply unable to believe that. Among my strongest beliefs are many of my moral beliefs, like believing that rape is wrong regardless of what any of us thinks. And so, along with what I said in my last letter, here’s another thing that keeps me from accepting atheism, despite my sympathies for some of your skepticism.

“If there is a God, then the moral standard can be simultaneously subjective and human-independent.”

But if I were an atheist (and please trust me when I say that I’ve very seriously considered this), I would try to refrain from condemning others as immoral, if for no other reason than that I value intellectual consistency. I would still, of course, feel disgust and disapproval over many of the things I currently believe are wrong. But hopefully I would keep reminding myself that it’s just that: a feeling. As the Dude says in The Big Lebowski, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

I’m always surprised by atheists who are strident about the “evils” of religion. I don’t deny that religion can be the source of all kinds of evils, but again, religion doesn’t have the corner on this. In any case, the atheists I have in mind often pride themselves on being heroic freethinkers, while still appealing to a rather traditional herd morality as if it were somehow binding on others. Or they argue from a kind of “we’re all in this together” sentimentalism. I don’t know whether they’re just naive, but I would be much more likely to listen to their arguments for atheism if I thought they were taking their atheism more seriously. Such atheists exist after all, and I do try to listen carefully to them.

Why God’s Morality?

I realize, of course, that there are important questions that I too have to answer, even if — or perhaps especially — if I’m right about the personal nature of morality. For example, why should I adhere to God’s moral standards? Are we back to might makes right? And what makes God’s standard the right one? Is it right simply because he likes it? If so, that seems pretty arbitrary.

My answers to these questions, in fact, bring us to the most important issue of all, that of the meaning of life. My answer is that reality itself is ultimately personal. At least it had better be if we’re going to make sense of the way we’d like to think about right and wrong.

In any event, I look forward to continuing this conversation and hearing your thoughts. If nothing else, it has been helpful for me to try to articulate my own views and get your feedback.