First published 5 December 2011
If I were to say to a couple who were sexually active with each other outside of a heterosexual marriage (to each other!) that their sexual activity is wrong or sinful, I guess their response would probably be, “why is it wrong? What harm is it doing to anyone?” It’s a response that would reveal one of the principles often given for non-religious moral standards. Since non-religious people have no absolutely infallible reference point (like the one Christians have from God via the Bible) they have to choose their own principles. One such principle used in civilised cultures (I would say those that have been historically influenced by Christianity) is that we can do many things, but we must not harm other people.
Of course, history is full of examples of where people have not used that principle. Hitler and Stalin obviously thought it was ok to inflict a great deal of suffering on a huge number of people. However, this only demonstrates how arbitrary these principles are when they have no absolute and objective reference point. When a higher principle is developed, for example, from the philosophies of Marx or Nietzsche, for the positive evolution of the human race (i.e. involving the elimination of those who are substandard), the ‘no harm’ principle gets an exclusion clause. And the recent English city riots and looting demonstrates that the ‘no harm’ principle is being gradually ditched, because it is arbitrarily restrictive, and replaced in many people by the ‘if it feels good do it’ principle.
I am also aware that some of those who have called themselves Christians in the past – e.g. the Crusaders or the Roman Catholic church with the Spanish Inquisition – have not lived up to the teachings of their Lord when they have caused suffering to their opponents. Atheists are quick to point this out and even grossly generalise by saying that all wars are caused by religion. However, my point in this introduction is not to say that Christians are morally better than atheists. We are no less sinners. Neither do I want to get into historical debates over which philosophies gave rise to which wars.
My point is simply that it is very common in today’s Western cultures to say that our guiding moral principle should be that anything is ok if it does not harm others. The point of mentioning Hitler and Stalin was only to reinforce what I’ve said in an earlier article, that moral standards without God are necessarily arbitrary. I am simply choosing for examination a foundation principle that is often held by non-religious people who want to portray themselves as respectable and civilised.
So let’s look at this ‘no harm’ principle. First of all, some people may question why I say that the principle is arbitrary. A rule is arbitrary if it has no logical basis or deduction – it cannot be deduced logically from true statements or facts. For example, parents are sometimes arbitrary when our children ask, “why do I have to do tidy my room?” and we answer, “Because I say so!” If something is only so because I say so, then that is arbitrary. My earlier articles have tried to show that all moral standards that are not based on God’s revelation of right and wrong, good and evil, are automatically arbitrary. They are subjective, as no-one can argue with someone else that one moral statement is right and another is wrong.
So we should ask from a non-religious perspective why it would be wrong to harm someone? Having asked this several times in real life, my experience is that the answer from the non-religious person is always something like, “well it’s obvious that you shouldn’t hurt someone”. But I don’t have to accept that it is obvious. As I mentioned above, there are many examples of people who don’t see that as obvious – people that the majority of civilised human beings frown upon or see as evil. Most people do not see Hitler or Stalin as simply having different philosophies. They see them as evil. But how would our civilised non-religious friends reason with someone who shared the same views as Hitler or Stalin? How would they argue that human beings should not inflict harm on each other? They have no basis. In practice, because they have no basis, they don’t try to reason. They resort to dehumanising people less civilised than themselves – so the likes of Hitler and Stalin are called madmen or monsters. The rioters of summer 2011 were called ‘feral rats’ and ‘scum’. The cannibals of the jungle are patronisingly called ‘primitive’ (they don’t know any better).
The non-religious person has no basis for the ‘no harm’ principle because this principle conflicts with their other basic assumptions. As I have highlighted in earlier articles, their basic assumptions about the origins of life lead them to believe that human beings are not set apart from other animals or even other things that exist. So why should we be upset about human beings – just one type of meaningless formation of molecules amongst millions – being harmed? And on the other hand, why should human beings be the only species or entity with their own moral code? Animals base their behaviour on fear and strength and class distinctions, rather than right and wrong. Why shouldn’t human beings? And if the response is simply that intellect, self-awareness and morality is just the particular way that human beings have evolved as distinct from other species, then intellect, self-awareness and morality are meaningless distinctions. On that basis one person’s morality based on not doing people harm is as good as another person’s morality based on using other people for their own pleasure.
But let’s also ask the question, what is harm? We could say that harm is an action performed on an entity that detracts from the quality, pleasure or good feeling of that entity. So the countryside can be harmed by leaving litter, because it detracts from the quality of the countryside. A person can be harmed physically, financially or emotionally by attacking their body, taking their possessions or by threatening their safety or security or pleasure.
But what defines quality in a universe where one formation of atoms is no more meaningful than any other? We could just as well say that quality is something esoteric that evokes pleasure in human beings. It’s something we sense.
But then what defines pleasure? Has pleasure any meaning? Isn’t pleasure just a release of endorphins in the human body, caused by certain predictable triggers? Is pleasure any more meaningful than something that gives human beings a will to survive?
And what if one person’s pleasure is limited by another person’s pleasure? Relationships are a good example. If your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend (pre-marriage) is not making you happy, or you can be happier with someone else, should you end the relationship or continue? Your boyfriend or girlfriend may be upset (reduced pleasure – i.e. harm) if you end it, so that your increased pleasure results in their reduced pleasure. Would it be wrong to end the relationship?
And if the response is that this is a trivial example, because hurt feelings don’t count, then why do we have a concept of ‘psychological abuse’ or bullying? Sometimes a domineering husband or wife may not physically hurt their spouse, but they inflict psychological damage by the way that they speak or act. And in the school playground a big kid may not actually physically hurt others, but may hurt someone’s feelings by their threatening or manipulative behaviour. Why would this be wrong if hurt feelings are trivial?
And why is it ok to harm criminals? Some would say it’s not ok, on the ‘no harm’ moral principle. That’s why many psychologists and politicians refuse to talk about punishment. If we don’t like someone’s behaviour to the extent that we call it criminal then we try first to ‘rehabilitate’ them (i.e. persuade them to live by the moral standards of the majority), then if they won’t be rehabilitated they are restricted. Prison becomes something that protects civilised society, rather than something that punishes criminals.
There are many many more avenues we could explore to show that the foundations of any morality without God are arbitrary, subjective and meaningless. We simply have to keep asking for definitions, asking why and pointing to the inconsistencies.
In the end we all basically know what harm is, what pleasure is, what quality is. The point is that non-religious people have no rational basis for these definitions. They simply feel what is right and wrong. But as Christians we know that people know these things because we are all created by God, in His image. God gives meaning to everything and is the foundation of truth and knowledge. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we cannot change the fact that we are God’s special creation. And as such we are made to think in terms of right and wrong, truth, emotion, pleasure, and such like. And therefore it is no surprise that all these things only make sense in a Christian worldview. But if non-religious people try to do without God and still have right and wrong, truth, pleasure, emotion, etc, they find they end in meaninglessness, irrationality and emptiness.
Next I want, God-willing, to look at the foundations of Christian morality, where it comes from, why it is a positive thing, and how it works. This will take another few articles.