Questions: Bruce, What Are Your Views on Objective Morality?

questions

I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.

Geoff asked, What are your views on objective morality?

The question asked by Geoff is complex and filled with nuance. Anytime I have addressed morality in the past, my writing has elicited all sorts of comments from atheists and Fundamentalists alike. It seems few people like or appreciate my worldview and my understanding of morality. As a Christian, I believed that the issue of morality was settled for me: God hath spoken. Shut the hell up and do what he commands! As a dutiful follower of Jesus, I attempted to follow not only the teachings of the Bible, but the direction of Holy Spirit who lived inside of me (or so I thought at the time).  Once I deconverted, I had to rethink my worldview. What was it I believed about morality in general? What was I it I believed about specific moral statements and standards? My understanding of morality has evolved over the past decade. I am, in no way, a finished product. I still have many questions about morality, and it is impossible to fully answer them in a blog post.

I readily admit that Christianity has deeply affected my understanding of morality. I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I spent twenty-five of those years pastoring Evangelical churches. As a result, Evangelical morality has seeped deeply into the dark recesses of my mind. While I try to distance myself from my past, its effects linger. Thus, there are times my moral views line up with those of Christians. This doesn’t mean, then, that I am a Christian. My views also, on occasion, line up with Buddhism and other religions. All this tells me is that religions have, in the past, played a big part in the evolution of human morality.

When someone asks me whether I believe in objective morality, what I hear them asking is whether I believe there are moral standards or moral absolutes. In the strictest sense, my answer is no. Morality is always subjective. Now that doesn’t mean countries, states, and tribes can’t have absolute moral standards. They can and do. All I ask is that believers in objective morality admit that their absolutes have changed over time, and that, in fact, the changing nature of their absolutes suggests that their morality is actually subjective. For example, there is a push in the United States to make eighteen the minimum age for marriage. This law, if passed, would be considered an objective moral standard. However, in the past, people were permitted to marry as young as age thirteen, and in some countries, children are betrothed to one another when they are still primary school age. If there’s such a thing as objective morality, then shouldn’t the age for marriage have been fixed from day one? That it hasn’t been shows the subjectivity of moral beliefs.

Morality is affected by tribal, cultural, and sociological influences. This means that all morality changes with time, including absolute, never-changing, God-said-it, it’s-in-the-Bible Evangelical morality. Evangelicals now do things that were considered sins — violations of objective morality — fifty years ago. Even Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) morality continues to change and evolve. Only those who are deliberately blind, people with fingers in their ears who say, nah, nah, nah, I can’t HEAR you, fail to see that morality is inherently subjective.

All of us belong to certain countries and tribes. As a U.S. citizen, I live in a country that supposedly values the rule of law. I say supposedly because Donald Trump’s abhorrent behavior and his penchant for ignoring the rule of law makes me question whether we indeed are still such people. Fascism is on the rise, and when it comes in full force it brings law by force, instead of WE THE PEOPLE deciding the laws that will govern us. For now, we are still a nation governed by laws shaped and enacted by legislators elected by voting Americans. These laws establish what we as a people believe is moral. These laws, over time, change. For example, at one time it was illegal to have an abortion; then in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized most abortions. Today, with the prospect of a right-wing Catholic being added to the Supreme Court, it is possible that laws regulating abortion will change, and women will be forced to revert to the days of coat-hanger, back alley abortions. The same can be said for much of the progress made on social and church/state issues over the past six decades. This ebb and flow shows that morality is subjective.

Theocrats, of course, despise the give and take of the legal process in democratic countries. They want a dictatorship, with the Christian (or Muslim) Holy book as the objective standard for morality. Theocrats demand that laws reflect their Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible (or Koran). In their minds, their interpretations are one and the same with God’s will and commands. But, even for theocrats, their interpretations change over time, thus proving, once again, that morality is subjective.

Not only do governments establish moral norms, so do the tribes to which each of us belong. Whether at the group or family level, certain moral standards govern behavior. Now, keep in mind I am using the word moral in as broad of a way as possible. Divorce your mind from the religious constructs you have been taught, and see morality as the rules/laws/precepts by which we govern behavior. I suspect your family has certain moral standards, and those standards may or may not be different from mine. For example, I have lost readers over my refusal to stop using curse words in my writing. In their tribes, cursing is verboten or is considered in poor taste. In my tribe, it is okay to curse, except when young children are present or Polly’s IFB parents are visiting (though there have been times when a few damns, shits, and assholes have slipped out). When it is only adults in the room? Cursing is permitted, and be prepared to be schooled in sexual innuendo. Were the readers who demanded that I sanitize my writing “wrong”? Who determines what words are appropriate and what words are not? It should be clear to everyone that the words writers choose to use are subjective. Each tribe to its own.

My children are known for having what is called the Gerencser work ethic. This ethic was taught to them by their parents. Work hard. Eight hours pay for eight hours work. Do your best. Do it right the first time. Never accept good enough as a standard for acceptance. The reasons for these maxims are many, but regardless of how they came to be, they are deeply ingrained into the psyche of my adult children. My oldest son has taken one personal day at work in twenty years. His mom has taken zero. My younger children are not as zealous as their older siblings, but they still are known for being no-nonsense hard workers. This tribal ethos often brings them into conflict with other employees who have different work standards. For example, one son works in a department where the majority of the workers have already used half or more of their personal days. My wife supervises people who are already out of personal days with six months to go before they accrue new days. Years ago, my two oldest sons were asked by their fellow employees to slow down. Why? They were making less industrious employees look bad. My sons ignored their critics, choosing instead to follow the Gerencser work ethic (an ethic that can be found in many families, by the way). Both now hold management positions with their respective employers, as do their younger brother and mother. Does this make the Gerencsers better than other people? Depends on how “better” is defined, I suppose. All I know is that this very subjective work ethic is deeply embedded in my tribe. We behave this way because that what we have been taught to do.

Each of us also has personal moral standards; certain things we will and won’t do. I don’t expect other people to live by my moral standards. These rules of behavior — ever-changing — help me navigate the road of life. As a humanist, I look to the humanist ideal to provide moral guidance. This ideal, crafted by men and women, is inherently subjective, but it does address and support my worldview. I have no problem with Evangelicals wanting to live by their personal interpretations of the Bible. Go with God, I say. It is when Evangelicals demand that others live by their interpretations I have a problem.

As a post-Evangelical, I have been forced to reexamine my morality and worldview. For example, I am a pacifist. More specifically, I am proponent of non-violent resistance. Sounds like a moral absolute, right? I would like it to be, but the world is too messy for it be so; too gray, too challenging for me to say that I am, without reservation, a pacifist. Generally, I oppose violence, yet I love and support American football — organized violence. I wouldn’t take up arms to defend the United States, but I would defend my family against attack and harm. I face this same struggle with most moral issues. It’s too easy to write Ten Commandments and say obey. I choose, instead, to think about each issue, and then come to a reasoned conclusion.

Most people agree that we should avoid harming others. I think that’s a good place to start. But, even here, it is impossible to ever live a life that does not, at some point, harm others. Take vegans. They don’t eat meat for moral reasons. They don’t want to cause animals pain and suffering. Yet, providing vegans a non-animal diet still causes pain, suffering, and death. Earthworms, insects, and other animals die so farmers can provided vegans with yummy (I am being sarcastic here) soybeans. The goal, then, should be to promote the greatest good while at the same time causing the least harm.  We can then build on this foundation, asking “what is the best way for humans to govern themselves and live lives of love, peace, and harmony — pass me a joint, bro.”

Human morality is inherently subjective; a work in progress; a work that will never be completed; a work that will hopefully lead to a kinder, gentler tomorrow; a work that places great value on justice and kindness. Nirvana, it will never be, but we can have a better tomorrow if we want it badly enough. Unfortunately, internecine warfare between countries and tribes leaves me wondering if human progress is but an illusion, a pipe dream. Perhaps it is, but I see no other option than to work towards a better future for my progeny. This work requires of us hard discussions and debates about morality. Holy books or trade paperbacks are not the answer. We the people remain the captains of our ships, the masters of our destinies. God’s not coming to save us.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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24 Comments

  1. ObstacleChick

    I am still in the process of determining what I think about objective morality. I do believe that those who believe that the bible is the only source of morality really should go read it cover to cover again. While I do not believe the stories are true, it is telling that people in those past centuries worshiped a God who committed multiple acts of genocide and somehow that is ok. And don’t tell me I can’t understand god’s ways – you are correct, I can’t understand why a supposedly benevolent omnipotent god would slaughter millions of people and animals on multiple occasions. At least infants and animals are incapable of choosing their actions – why slaughter them all when they aren’t accountable? Then there are the rules about how women and slaves are to be treated. A truly moral book written by a moral deity would have given an inkling that misogyny and slavery are wrong – such deity would not have given the instructions found in the bible. The deity would have given an all encompassing moral code that is unambiguous.

    Reply
    1. GeoffT

      I think that the points you make demonstrate perfectly why even the bible is not a source of objective morality. The monstrous actions committed by the god of the bible, from genocide to child slaughter, cannot possibly be right in themselves and, in fact, even the obsessive Christians who defend it with ‘we can’t know the mind of god’ are admitting that it appears wrong. Hence any justification must be based on the consequences of the action, and so the action itself cannot possibly be objectively wrong.

      William Lane Craig incidentally states that consequentialism is a ‘horrible’ concept. Then again, I can never understand Craig when it comes to anything; he’s the ultimate snake oil salesman.

      Reply
  2. Paul McLaughlin

    There’s a third option between objective and subjective morality and that’s a social interpretation of moral obligations. The question is not what does a god say is right for all time? or what do I feel is right for me now? but what makes society function better? Take abortion: it should be legal because IMHO society functions better when women have access to safe pregnancy termination facilities. We can argue about whether that’s true or not, but the upside is that we won’t be arguing about unresolvable theological points or personal feelings.

    Reply
    1. Joel

      So then moral obligations do exist, and are contingent on whatever is deemed best for society?

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        Yes, I would argue that we have moral obligations to each other. Humans collectively, in general and allowing for tribal, cultural, and sociological differences, have decided that certain behaviors promote wellbeing, peace, and happiness. If those are the grand objectives, then the question is, what to we do about bad behavior. We enact laws and punish bad behavior. As our thinking and understanding evolves, so does our laws and our control/punishment of bad behaviors (and our encouragement of good behaviors through rewards, incentives).

        If there is no God, there’s no one left but us to decide what kind of world we want to live in. And if there is a God — and billions of people say there is — it is still up to humans, isn’t it, to live according to the commands of their Holy Writings? How’s THAT working out? 😀 I would argue that religion has been given a chance to bring about a better world and has, for the most part, miserably failed. Perhaps it is time to try something different, say secular humanism or letting Bruce Almighty be God for a day. 😀

        Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I totally agree with what you say in your comment, Paul. As an atheist, I’ve been forced to rethink countless moral/ethic issues. Abortion is one. I used to be ardently pro-life. Now I understand the need for abortion and why permitting abortion is good for society and beneficial to women.

      Reply
  3. ObstacleChick

    Paul, that is a good point as well. When one considers that our ancestors spent millennia developing concepts of which behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable, it is most likely the behaviors that benefited the tribe that were encouraged, while the behaviors that harmed the tribe were discouraged.

    Also, I consider the list that most of us think of as the 10 commandments to be unhelpful (at best) for modern society. 4 of them concern how to reverse a deity and are therefore extraneous in modern society. The command not to murder or steal are common sense, likely punished behaviors that were identified as harmful to the tribe. Coveting….is that really worse than rape or abuse or enslaving another human? Honoring parents is nice, but again, is dishonoring parents the worst thing one could do? (This is part of the reason I think Christians who want 10 commandments posted at courthouses, schools, etc., posted are just plain ignorant and pushing something they don’t even critique as an intelligent human being).

    Reply
  4. marfin

    You guys are missing the point, you speak about morality as though its a given, well lets see, can some one please give a definition of what morality is and then how you know that said definition is correct.

    Reply
    1. GeoffT

      The fact that you are able to ask this question, and that it makes sense, shows that morality is, indeed must be, subjective. Morality is about doing the right thing, about acting in a way that is conducive to the wellbeing of others, about minimising suffering, and so on. No quirky one liners, can define morality, which is why you won’t ever see any.

      Reply
      1. marfin

        GeoffT- you have sidestepped the question by using terms like right thing , and well being as though these things are clearly defined.Take Divorce for instance it might be the right thing or for the well being of the one who is leaving to be with someone else but is it for the well being of the one left behind to perhaps raise 3 or 4 children alone, so divorce moral or not? and ultimately who gets to say if its moral or not.

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          We do. We decide what is “moral” through laws. We decide, based on what is good and beneficial for the most people. We decide, based on what promotes happiness and well-being. We, we, we, we, we, we, we, we, we…. There is no God, Marfin, so who else would decide what is “moral” except we, the people? There is no God, so EVERYTHING is up to us.

          Ireland, for example, in recent years legalized divorce and abortion. These laws promote the greater good, especially for women. Again, there is no God, so it’s left to us to determine what is moral and just. This process will always be messy, subjective, and very human. All we can do is reason and think, and act accordingly.

          Of course, you want to deny human autonomy and agency and, instead, enslave humans with the nonsensical pronouncements of your God as found in a Bronze Age religious text. No thanks. We can see firsthand the damage done by your religion. It’s time chart a new course — humanism.

          Reply
          1. GeoffT

            The reality is that Marfin can’t himself answer his question of how to define morality.

          2. Marfin

            so we decide, like we decided to have WW1, WW2,Korean war, Vietnam war, Balkans war,2 Gulf wars, 20,000 murders every year in the US, upwards of 80,000 drug war death in Mexico,Rape murder,violence every day in every nation , so tell me Bruce who is making such great decisions, and who are you to tell them they have no right to make such decisions.
            As for Ireland and out new abortion laws , its funny this was promoted as a woman’s rights and HEALTH ISSUE , and people marched in the streets for years to get this law passed. Alcohol harms and kills 1000 times more women in Ireland than any crisis pregnancy but not one march now why is that, if we humans are so great at making moral decisions why no march against Ireland`s scourge alcohol, I know why and you do to.
            The question is not whether God exists or not is who gets to decides whats moral or not and you still have not answered that question as we is not answer.

          3. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

            Yes, we is the answer, the only answer, for there is no none else but we. As far as all the violence in the world, yes we have the right, duty, and obligation to put an end to it. Why? It promotes the greatest good and causes the least amount of suffering. Unlike Christians, I don’t blame bad behavior on sin, and I don’t see my fellow humans as inherently broken and in need of fixing.

            I answered this question sufficiently, Marfin. You can either accept that or pack up your traveling road show and move on down the road. You seem to think I’ve forgotten past interactions with you. I haven’t. I reset the banned list every year, so that’s the only reason you are commenting now. I’m an atheist. Your God is a myth, and your Holy Book carries no authority here. Since these two things are true, who else but we the people decide what is moral? There’s no one but us. That’s my final answer.

  5. Joel

    Eventually a vast artificial intelligence will be used perform all the “moral” calculations needed to make the best possible statistical decisions regarding what is most beneficial for civilization.

    Reply
  6. marfin

    GeoffT No but if A God the creator and maker of all exists then it is at least logical to say he must be the moral law giver seeing he made us, Now thats if he exists. Now if he does not exist its a free for all and moral is just a word with no basis in reality as even having free will is open to debate if all we are is a random collection of atoms and our thoughts and desires no more than the colliding of atoms and electrical discharges in our head.
    So my position maybe wrong because God does not exist but its logical if he does , where your position is illogical in all cases.

    Reply
    1. GeoffT

      “So my position maybe wrong because God does not exist but its logical if he does , where your position is illogical in all cases.”

      Even if god does exist, and even if his moral proclamations can somehow be identified, human kind must still make the decision as to whether to follow them. All of the considerations that we give in assessing and delivering moral and ethical into society would still be necessary. In other words, morality is subjective even if there is a god.

      Oh, and don’t be so dismissive as to the way in which we derive our morals. It’s much more complex than, for example the ridiculous Dennis Prager casually dismissing thousands of years of societal development by labelling it ‘just opinion’, or that without objective morality ‘anything goes’. These types of argument are, in my opinion, insulting.

      Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      You can’t see beyond your fucking religion, Marfin, and therein lies your inability to see any other viewpoint but your own. You seem to think that just because you say something — Now if he does not exist its a free for all and moral is just a word with no basis — doesn’t make it so.

      As far as free-will is concerned, unless you are a Pelagian, all Christian sects believe free-will is limited (Arminius) or non-existent (Calvin, Luther). So, for scientists to suggest that humans might not be as free as they think they are is wrong why, Marfin?

      Reply
  7. ObstacleChick

    Out of all the different religions’ gods that supposedly wrote books or guidelines for “morality” they have all done a very crappy job, in my opinion. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim god(s) could not even muster the common sense to communicate that slavery, misogyny, rape, bigotry toward homosexuality are wrong. You would think an omniscient omnipotent God would be able to (a) determine those simple tenets of common decency and (b) figure out a way to communicate clearly and effectively. I surely don’t want to worship or follow a deity who is either that negligent, that incapable, or that malevolent to be incapable of something a teen could do. What a doofus of a deity.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I receive the Daily Stoic newsletter. Here’s what today’s newsletter said:

      This world is the only one that exists,” Steven Pressfield has Telamon of Arcadia say in his wonderful book Tides of War, “Learn its laws and obey them. This is true philosophy.”

      What does this mean? It means that in Ancient Greece, just as it is today, it’s easy to get distracted with the unknown mysteries of the universe and the heavens. It’s easy to get distracted with metaphysical debates and complicated ethical questions. Is there life on other planets? How do we know we’re not living in a computer simulation? What’s heaven like? Who gets to go there? But the truth is that the world we live in here and now is in front of us, and must be reckoned with. Because we only get one shot at it!

      And Bruce says, AMEN. 😀

      Reply
  8. Daniel Wilcox

    Hmm…Bruce, it appears that, again, your statements on morality seem contradictory in your last several letters. You think the Christian God ought not to behave as the Old and New Testament claim he does (as have I since I was 11 years old and knew contrary to our Sunday school teacher and the Bible that no one, certainly not God, ought to send bears to maul kids for making fun of someone).

    You seen to think that misbehavior by leaders ought to be stopped and reported, etc., yet you claim that morality is subjective.

    Granted there are some gray areas–at least currently where some actions are difficult to judge.

    BUT many general moral oughts seem to be very clear, very real–moral realism. Rape, slavery, molestation, abuse are always wrong. Dishonesty in journalism, in science, etc. always is wrong.

    Heck, dishonesty in science makes it impossible to do science accurately, and so forth.

    So we very strongly disagree, and you seem to even disagree with your self;-) when it comes to the claim that morality is subjective.

    Lastly, you highlight the url for the Humanist Manifest III.

    Unclear! It would appear that the Manifesto does think at least some morals are real.

    For instance, it states that all humans have inherent worth! If morality is subjective, then, of course, it’s only an illusion or delusion to claim that humans have inherent worth.

    Inherent worth is very objective.

    (I’m using the terms objective and subjective in the general dictionary sense as we used them for many years in public schools. For instance, there is nothing subjective about students cheating! Thankfully, very few students over the years cheated in the classes I taught. In fact, I was very surprised and disheartened when it did occur, and I happened to spot it. We teachers didn’t think that verified cheating is subjective. On the contrary, cheating is always wrong.)

    One area that we do have a view in common: that religion–Christianity in particular–is delusional and often harmful, at least in some of its many forms.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Morality is subjective to the degree that it changes and evolves over time. People change. Cultures change. How we understand our world and our place in it changes with time.

      We the people decide what is moral and we use laws to regulate said morality. Objective morality is absolutist — never changing. Yet, close examination reveals that absolute moral claims can and do change with time. Thus, we can say emphatically the rape is immoral, but what constitutes rape has changed with time. Yes, we can say slavery is wrong, yet in capitalistic societies legal slavery is widespread.

      I view all moral claims from sociological, cultural, and tribal perspective. This allows me to see and understand how morality has evolved over time and why it is inherently subjective. That doesn’t mean that at a certain point in human history all moral beliefs are subjective. Of course there are moral beliefs most humans universally accept as absolutes. I’ve never said otherwise. I am saying, however, that the long arc of human development, progress, and history clearly shows that absolute moral claims can and do change with time. If a moral belief can change then it is by definition subjective, even if the change takes hundreds of years.

      For whatever reason, you are unable to understand the nuances of my view on morality. I suspect part of the problem is the definitions we give to subjective and objective. Every time I write on morality I can count on you and Marfin showing up to object. So, to avoid yet another heated discussion on the issue, we will just have to agree to disagree.

      Reply
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  10. Paul

    I don’t think the subjective-objective distinction is particularly useful in this discussion. It leads to fruitless debates over definitions and logic-chopping arguments that lead down well-worn paths to nowhere.

    IMHO, the heart of issue is, are moral principles god-given or not. If you believe they are, and you you are a bible-thumping evangelical, you also believe that they are absolute and unchanging and that they are clearly and fully articulated in the bible. Making a moral decision is like solving a logic problem. This position is fraught with problems, not the least being explaining why there has been so much disagreement over what moral principles the bible actually prescribes.

    OTH, if you don’t believe moral principles are god-given (you may be an atheist, an agnostic, a Buddhist or just a non-combatant), you can observe, objectively, how you and other humans make moral decisions. You can see that there are a small number of moral principles that are widespread in space and time, but that most of the “absolutes” dear to the hearts of evangelicals are not moral principles at all, but control devices whereby (mostly) male pastors, elders and other church leaders dominate their flocks to extract money, sex and obedience. Some do it cynically, knowing that it’s a crock; they are objectively immoral. Others, like Bruce for 30 years, do it because they truly believe, based on their life experience, it’s the right thing to do. However, that doesn’t make it right: when you objectively consider their impact on their parishioners, it’s clear that evangelical leaders, however earnest they may be, are acting immorally because they encourage behaviours that damage themselves, their followers and society as a whole.

    It is not the case that “anything goes” if there are no god-given rules. How do moral people make moral decisions? They consult their conscience, which has largely (though not entirely) been shaped by their social experiences, especially in early life, consider the context and try to predict the impact of their decisions on themselves and others. There are no absolute rules. It’s a largely intuitive process with both subjective and objective features that results in decisions about what is the best thing for them to do in the circumstances.

    Reply

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