Justification for morality


In recent months I’ve found myself questioning whether “morality” as I conceive it exists at all. In an earlier post I laid out the moral principles I use to answer some of the moral questions considered to be difficult, such as the question of whether the United States should have used nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II. I wrote:

If I were designing a religion, I would make it so that transgressions against level 1 that are not punished in real life would result in punishment after death.

I am admitting now that the reason why I referred to religion here is that I cannot think of any other way to ascribe “meaning” to morality. I pointed out that since I am not religious, I simply think that level 1 transgressions are “evil”. This, of course, does not help at all; it just introduces another term, that is, another concept whose meaning is also unclear.

I am not saying that all of a sudden I am questioning whether I should continue to abide by those principles. I am not questioning that at all. I question, rather, whether I should continue to believe that morality is anything more than a mere product of the imagination, just as I wondered the same thing, many years ago, about יהוה (Yahweh). (My mom enrolled me in something called “Vacation Bible School” a few times when I was younger; luckily for me, she didn’t make a big deal about it when I eventually decided I didn’t want to go anymore.) I question whether I have any ultimate justification for the moral principles by which I abide, rather than simply “because I don’t want innocent people to be killed”, and so on.

After all, I am essentially a materialist; I believe that the physical universe is all that exists (although I still struggle to come to terms with the materialist position to the hard problem of consciousness, that subjective experience is identical with the associated neurological phenomena that exist in the physical universe). Deities clearly have no physical existence, and I concluded long ago that they therefore do not exist at all. I can no longer see why I should not reach a similar conclusion for moral principles, which also do not exist physically, in any sense other than that we can come up with ideas and communicate them to each other.

I note here that, in the past, I have frequently been frustrated that many of my atheist friends have denied that there is any such thing as morality; but it is their denial of morality that caused me to question whether I, myself an atheist, should continue to harbor a belief in it. It looks like I’ll soon be joining them.

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About Brian

Hi! I'm Brian Bi. As of November 2014 I live in Sunnyvale, California, USA and I'm a software engineer at Google. Besides code, I also like math, physics, chemistry, and some other miscellaneous things.
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