Consequences: The Great Question of “Should”

Whether one believes in a God or not, there can be no logical basis for the claim that one should do anything. When I speak of should here, I am speaking of an objective imperative, not a subjective feeling. To illustrate this, let us conduct a thought experiment. Imagine an intelligent, omniscient Mind, unconnected with any life on earth, or with any of the gods or other supernatural beings mankind has come up with over the years. What possible logical basis could such a Mind have for the conclusion that any particular human being on the planet Earth should do anything? Furthermore, what logical basis could that Mind have for the objective conclusion that any particular human being on the planet earth was morally good or morally evil because it acted in one way, or refrained from acting in another? I contend that there can be no such logical basis.

Let’s assume there is a God. If the God planted morality in the brain of the human, it would not serve as a logical basis for the claim that the moral code in question was, therefore, endowed with absolute, objective validity. The Mind might logically conclude that the human was or was not acting according to the God’s mental programming, but would have no basis for making any moral judgments on account of it. Suppose the human in question had certain knowledge of the existence of the God, and was also perfectly aware of the moral law laid down by that God without any ambiguity, and the Mind was aware of this as well. It would still have no logical basis for the conclusion that the human was objectively good or objectively evil, depending on whether it obeyed the moral law or not. It might observe that the human was rebellious, or that the human’s actions annoyed the God, but that would be no basis for the conclusion that the human was genuinely good or genuinely evil. It would take note of the fact that the human did not create itself, but was created by the God. It had not chosen to be created, and had played no role in the creation of any moral law. The Mind might further note that the God, for inscrutable reasons known only to itself, intended to subject this infinitely inferior being, which the God itself had created, to a terrible torture for billions and trillions of years if the human didn’t do what the God wanted. Under the circumstances, it might conclude that the human was not acting logically if it chose to ignore the law, but, again, it would have no rational basis for concluding that the human was really, objectively evil for choosing to ignore the God’s seemingly irrational whims.

If, on the other hand, no Gods or other supernatural beings existed, the case would be clear. The Mind could have no basis for concluding that morality had an independent, objective existence of its own. As a consequence, it could have no rational basis for the conclusion that a particular human was good or evil depending on whether it obeyed some arbitrarily chosen moral code or not.

In other words, good and evil have no independent existence, other than as subjective mental constructs. Nothing is absolutely, objectively good, or absolutely, objectively evil. From our own, human point of view, that puts us in a quandary, because we perceive morality as objective and absolute. Why? Morality did not suddenly spring into existence with the evolution of man. It had evolved in other creatures millions of years before we arrived on the scene. It still exists in many other species besides ourselves. Morality evolved because it promoted survival. It would not have functioned very effectively if it had evolved as something that creatures lacking even our limited mental skills were to act on only after long philosophical deliberation. Therefore, it evolved as something perceived as absolute, as having a real, objective existence. It was in that form that it most effectively promoted survival.

That is why the great scientists mentioned in earlier posts, not to mention many others among our best thinkers, speak of good and evil as real, objective things rather than mental constructs. That’s the way they experience them, just as everyone else does, and, like most of the rest of us, they probably haven’t taken the time to seriously consider whether there is really any logical basis for perceptions that seem so self-evident. We must, necessarily, live our lives as moral beings, constantly applying moral judgments to our own actions and those of others, because that is the way we have been programmed in the process of our evolution. How, then, should we respond when we really do start looking for the rational basis for our perception of the world in terms of good and evil and come to the logical conclusion that morality is merely subjective? Should we decide to live our lives as purely logical, cerebral beings? We can no more do that than live outside of our own skins. What, then, should we do? We will consider the matter in a later post.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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