value-free or values-free

Can there be morality without God or gods? First, let's talk about absolute and relative values. I believe all values are relative, and absolute values do not exist. Take murder for instance. Most cultures today would condemn murdering children as "bad" or "wrong", but in many ancient cultures including the Carthaginian and Aztec cultures child sacrifice was regularly practised on a large scale. In the Aztec culture, thousands of children were ritually drowned to appease the god Tlaloc. There are many examples of how values differ from one culture to the next.

But that was then, and this is now. Things have changed, for the "better" (whatever that means), haven't they? Today, all right-thinking people agree on what is right and wrong, don't they? Well, actually, no. Female genital mutilation, for instance, is still practised widely in a number of modern cultures. Even today, there is nothing absolute about the value of protecting children from harm. And there are numerous other modern examples, and to those cultures I say, "you know who you are and what you do".

In a values-based morality, actions (and even thoughts) are said to be "bad" or "wrong" by reference to rules or standards imposed by an authority external to the individual (eg God, gods, the law, the priesthood, the army, mom and dad, the headmaster, social worker, etc). But often, the external authority has feet of clay and acts or speaks in a way that is inconsistent with values previously established by the selfsame authority. And often the values imposed or the protocols we live by are just plain dumb and have no practical application. Why do men wear neckties to work, for instance?

The New Testament for instance, records that Jesus lost his temper with a fig tree and withered it when it would not produce fruit on demand and out of season. Oh, but that was intended metaphorically, oh, I see, sorry, my mistake.

In fact, most people unthinkingly and blindly accept external authority as the dictator of morality and values. Others, however, are not willing to accept an external authority, but instead use the compass of purpose to guide behaviour.

To illustrate, if my purpose is to travel from Paris, France to Berlin, Germany along the shortest possible route, then for me to make that journey via Sydney, Australia would not be "wrong" or "bad", but rather, would not serve that particular purpose.

Another example: If I want to have a healthy respiratory system, then to smoke cigarettes would not serve my purpose. It would not be wrong or bad to smoke; it would be inadvisable given the stated purpose.

Another example: If I don't ever want to be punched in the face, then for me to punch someone in the face will not serve that particular purpose, because by punching someone in the face I am increasing the likelihood of that person retaliating in kind. From a purpose-driven perspective, therefore, it would not be "wrong" or "bad" for me to punch someone in the face; instead, it would be an action that would not serve my purpose.

So, in my view the answer is no: we don't need God, or gods, or any external authority to dictate morality. And I'll go further: I believe the results produced by purpose-driven, values-free living are indistinguishable from those produced when values are imposed or dictated by an external authority. And yes, I realise it's a bit like the "invisible hand" of market forces, but there's no time or space to get into that now.

Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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