• Testing The Source of Morality

    Atheist-Morality-300x232Religious believers love to claim that God is the only possible source for morality. While I have made it clear in a previous article that God does not ground morality at all and that the true source of morality is human empathy and compassion, many religious believers still hold on to their dogmatic view. Not to worry, I have developed a test to see which one of us is correct.

    The test is basically Abraham’s Choice. In the biblical story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of Abraham’s faith. Will Abraham kill his own son to please his Lord? Yes, he would have except that an angel came down and told Abraham at the last minute that he no longer had to “sacrifice” his son and that it was just a test of faith.

    Many years ago, I asked my Christian friend Saint Stephen about what he would do if God had commanded him to sacrifice his child. It made for fantastic radio given that his wife and kids were listening in the next room and the walls of our studio were made of glass. He told me that he had to get back to me on that one. Since then, shit happened and he never had the opportunity to get back to me… but I digress.

    It seems that this question was a huge moral dilemma for him and it really shouldn’t have been. I recently asked this same question to my Christian friend Greg and he kept refusing to answer. But I don’t really see why it is such a tough question for him either.

    Of course he should kill his kid. God is the only source of morality and God has commanded him to kill his kid. Sacrificing his child to God must be morally good. God said so. Beside, God could always stop him at the last minute or has my friend Greg pointed out, God could even bring his child back to life like he did Job’s kids… oh wait, bad example.

    Still, it isn’t like his child will be torture for all eternity or anything, I’m sure his child has been indoctrinated and believes with 100% certainty that Jesus is Lord. This is good news because after my Christian friends sacrifice their respective children, their children get to go to Heaven to live in bliss for all eternity. My Christian friends will see their respective children again real soon (relatively speaking).

    On the other hand, if I am correct and the true source of morality isn’t God, but is instead human empathy and compassion, then it would be morally wrong to kill a child as a sacrifice to a deity or for pretty much any other reason. It doesn’t matter if God commands it or not, it would be morally wrong.

    Now here is the rub. The very fact that Christians hesitate on this question is evidence that morality really is about human empathy and compassion even if the Christian ends up making the wrong moral choice (as sadly a few might). We have a moral intuition based on our human empathy and compassion that killing children or anyone for that matter is morally wrong in most cases. When Christians debate this issue in their mind, they have to make a choice against what we know to be moral. They have to weigh their love of their deity against what they know to be moral.

    In other words, even if they choose their deity, they have conceded that it was a difficult choice worthy of inner debate and conflict. Why? Christians don’t want to obey God if God commands them to kill their kid. They still might obey God and that would be horrific, but part of them knows that it would be horrific and that is my point. If God commands it and he is the true source of morality, the thought of obeying God’s command no matter what it is shouldn’t be horrific at all.

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    Category: AtheismfeaturedMoralityPhilosophySacrifice


    Article by: Staks Rosch

    Staks Rosch is a writer for the Skeptic Ink Network & Huffington Post, and is also a freelance writer for Publishers Weekly. Currently he serves as the head of the Philadelphia Coalition of Reason and is a stay-at-home dad.


    1. While I do agree that God is not the source of moral knowledge, I do not agree that compassion and empathy are the source. Compassion and empathy allow us to practice moral truths, and provide us with valuable moral insights, but there is I believe a different source of moral knowledge. We can test this claim if we try to solve a moral problem (the terrorist problem, for example) only using compassion and empathy. You claim compassion and empathy are both the source of moral knowledge and, I would assume, the things which allow a person to act morally, consistently. So could you a person(s) using only compassion and empathy come up with and solve complex moral dilemmas?

      The source of morality is still highly controversial; you have people claiming it’s compassion and empathy, others that it’s an evolutionary survival tool, and others that it’s purely rational. Then you have meta-ethicists who throw a bunch of wrenches into everything we thought we knew.

      I think we can take a page from the meta-ethical book to get ourselves farther away from ignorance and closer to truth. For one thing (quickly), I don’t think you’d disagree that morality is composite, and that we have the power to change what we mean by ‘morality’. Is it normative, or is it just descriptive? What does moral autonomy mean, and does morality require intelligence?

      I believe that morality is composite, and that emotions as well as refined reason should and do dictate what we mean by morality. I also think that morality is changed by human experience – particularly human suffering. There are so many different gradations of suffering that the moral truths people suffering discover are often not-replicable. Morality also has to have predictive success; compassion and empathy score low on that test, I think. Empathy is a skill that has to be honed, and compassion has to be informed.

      1. I don’t think you understand what I meant here. In the blog post, I linked to the articles where I discuss morality in more detail. I wrote three articles on morality in the Atheism 101 section which address this more fully.

        “you have people claiming it’s compassion and empathy, others that it’s an evolutionary survival tool, and others that it’s purely rational.”

        It’s all three!!! These are not mutually exclusive. As I explain in other articles, our empathy is an evolutionary trait which allows us to work together as a collective. We are able to reason what would be most compassionate for others and for our society. It’s all linked together.

        1. I certainly did understand what you meant here. I think perhaps you didn’t explain yourself well enough in this post or that you have explained yourself elsewhere. It’s good to see we agree, though.

    2. Hi, this is my take on this:
      Isn’t it strange, that God who is Purely Good, would order Abraham to Kill his innocent son, Isaac?
      Would our loving Father, God, play a “Trick” like this on His loyal servant?
      Could it be that God NEVER told Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?

      All of these questions are answered in this Teaching:

      • The Common Understanding of this record
      • Why is this “Test” Questionable?
      • Did God Tempt Abraham?
      • Burnt Offering vs. Sacrifice
      • Satan’s Deception
      • Not the first time Abraham Miscomprehended
      • How old was Isaac?
      • Other Important things to Note

      -Andrew Davis

    3. I don’t understand the grounding for morality.

      I act based on my emotions which, of course, include empathy and compassion.

      For there to be a moral system on top of that, doesn’t there need to be a real legitimate obligation on others around me?

      Wouldn’t a moral system without obligation be equivalent to a system of recommendation? So assuming there is an actual legitimate system of morality, where does the obligation come from?

      1. Empathy creates the obligation. You feel for other people and hence you should show compassion for other people. If you can’t feel empathy for other people, then you have a real problem. We call those people sociopaths and they need help.

        1. The only thing I can conclude from my empathy is that I have empathy, not that I have an obligation to act upon my empathy.

            1. Maybe if you shout, empathy will magically turn into obligation. Go ahead. Give it a try.

              (It’s like saying falling in love obligates you to marry someone…or it isn’t real love. 🙂 )

          1. If by “obligation” you mean some authoritarian ruler granting you permission, then no, you have no “obligation.” But if you mean why should you help other people, then it is pretty clear that you should feel a desire to help other people because you feel empathy for them. You can imagine yourself in their position and therefore feel a genuine need to make their position better. If you don’t feel that genuine desire, then you don’t have empathy. We don’t always feel empathy for everyone or everything. But that is why society has become more moral over time. We have begun to feel empathy for more groups. In Biblical times, people didn’t feel empathy for anyone other than their small tribe and even then, only men in their small tribe. As a result, they didn’t act compassionately toward other people outside the men of their tribe. Now we do feel empathy for people all over the world of many colors and hopefully of those of the opposite gender too. So we began to recognize that those people had rights and acted to defend those rights. Now many religious people struggle to feel empathy for people who are gay. As a result, they don’t treat them with compassion. But more and more that is changing and soon, it won’t matter what the Bible says about gay people because empathy trumps some ancient story book when it comes to morality every time!

            1. 🙂

              “You ‘should’ (feel a desire to help other people) because (you feel empathy for them.)”

              You should (A) because (A).

              Circular nonsense.

              Or are you using “should” in a sense identical to the following non-moral meteorological context?

              “We ‘should’ see scattered showers this afternoon.”

    4. Something I have always wondered: Why do we assume that killing is immoral? It isn’t an anomaly throughout history, and people in power routinely call for it. It is arguable as a punishment for crimes, and it is legally permitted by governments to deal with unwanted pregnancies. It seems that if the source for moral knowledge is compassion and empathy that all the former examples would be outliers and not common place.

      Also, I am a Christian that believes in God and Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. God has called for the killing of many people throughout the Bible and history. I wouldn’t claim to know why He would do this other than as a gardener pulls up plants, tills the ground killing all sorts of organisms and insects, and may use poison to keep pests away from his work – it is the Creator’s right to work with, change, and destroy His work.

      It’s hard for the creation to accept this. Maybe that’s where your Christian friends were coming from, a place of dealing with the hierarchy of creation. As a father I have created my son, and if God asked me to kill my creation there would be a wrestling match between my creation and created-ness.

      Hope this makes some sense.
      You all have a great day!

      1. Again, it isn’t an assumption! It is based off of our empathy and compassion. We feel for other people and can identify with them. As such, we feel compassion for them and don’t want them to suffer or die. Governments kill people because they can’t identify with them and feel no empathy for them. That doesn’t make it moral, it just means that they are amoral.

        In the Bible God tortures and kills people all the time. Yeah, because the character of God in the Bible is an immoral dictator!!!! He was a character written in a time when people saw the world as needing a feudal Lord. We have democracies now. We see people as equals and we identify with other people instead of seeing them as our serfs to be used and abused at the whim of the feudal Lord.

        1. Several points here:
          First you first equate governments with amoral behavior and then say that our democracies are different. The point is inconsistent but I understand what I think you are getting at; in a democracy it is people running the government so there is more compassion and empathy. There are still aborted babies, wars, capital punishment, economic abuse, and liberty garnishing. A lot of these items are not limited to government. Individuals seek to kill their unwanted babies, fight in wars voluntarily, seek out capital punishment, steal and cheat for financial gain, and abuse one another’s liberties. It shows a lack of empathy to ignore the fact that it is individuals who do the ‘amoral’ actions… often times more than what you might label as ‘moral’.

          If seems to me that it must be impossible to measure how much empathy and compassion each person has. You use inclusive language when talking about empathy and compassion, but you are only able to speak definitively about your level of E&C. It would be impossible for you to make a factual statement about the source of morality from your vantage point. Just like it is impossible for scientists to measure the size of the Universe because they exist within its bounds, an individual cannot be an authority on morality while existing within their own body. Your observations are limited to actions and not able to see motive.

          Secondly, what examples are you referring to where God tortures people? I am unfamiliar with such a statement.

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