Morality, meaning, hopelessness

Just on the way back from speaking at an event organised by the humanist society at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. Their student organiser was great and very keen but school and college audiences are always the most inscrutable. They sit expressionless throughout your talk (occasionally laughing: at your jokes if you are lucky) and you can’t tell until the questions which are the loyal adherents of Dawkins, the Pope, Sartre, or Buddha.

In the questions and afterwards I got the usual mixture of responses: interested and engaged questions on specific points from agnosticism to ‘spirituality’; the people who don’t ask questions but come up at the end to thank you for having said what they believe (and on this occasion a rather lovely ‘I understand better now why I believe what I believe’); the Christian with very fundamental beliefs who wants to tell you what you believe and demonstrate the total falsity of your position etc.

But whether it was because the audience at this college was particularly intelligent and engaged (they were) or whether I am just in a particularly thoughtful mood, today’s experience galvanised a few realisations that have been brewing in my mind through a number of public discussions over the years.

1. ‘Morality’

I am finding that there comes a point where discussions about morality become intractable not because of disagreement about particular values or convictions about what we should do but because of basic disagreements about what morality is.

I use the word to mean:

any organised attempt to reinforce our social impulses and on a individual level to mean the process through which we decide the right thing to do, a process in which we use our own sentiments as well as the theories, codes, principles and so on which our culture provides us with. I see morality as having its origin (but just its origin) in our biology and as relying on our shared human needs and desires for whatever universality it has.

Others – often religious but not always – use the word to mean

settled principles or rules, deriving from a source outside of humanity, adherence to which (or active engagement with which) constitutes correct behaviour. They see this as having an existence independently of human beings, as the moon or stars exist, and relying for its authority either on this objectivity or on the sanction given to it by a divinity.

Sometimes the incompatibility of these two stances makes further discussion of morality as morality impossible or at least unproductive. I think in future discussions I will make this point when the time comes and then go on to discuss the evidence for the two ‘origin of morality’ claims as the only way to move the issue forwards. I have evidence for what I believe from biology and anthropology as well as experience. What evidence is there for the alternative account of the origin of morality?

2. ‘Meaning’

The same problem applies to the idea of ‘meaning’ in life. When I talk about ‘meaning in life’ I am talking about

the sense of meaningfulness that human beings (individually and collectively) create in their lives through adopting worthwhile goals, through relationships with others, through aesthetic and emotional and sensory experiences.

Others – often religious but not always – use the word to refer to

some sort of ultimate and objective purpose that transcends not only the individual but all of humanity. This is meaning as an answer to the ‘What’s it all for?’ question.

I am reluctant to let the use of ‘meaning’ go but I think I will and will use ‘fulfilment or sense of purpose in life’ in the future to keep things explicitly human and earthly avoid confusion with the claim there is objective or ultimate meaning to the universe.

3. There really are non-religious people who believe only religion provides a secure foundation for values and meaning

It is almost always only in student groups that I encounter this, but there is a sort of theoretical nihilism felt by some non-religious people, for whom muddling through and dealing with life as it is, accepting that morality is a prudential endeavour relying on our shared human needs and accepting that there is no objective purpose to reality, only the meanings that we make for ourselves is not enough.

I think this is very much a minority position among thoughtful people and I also think it is theoretical and has little effect on the actions in practice of even those who believe it in theory. But it reminds me of three things:

The first is a concise quote from J S Mill that sums up this position nicely and shows how little things changes over the decades:

Many, having observed in others or experienced in themselves elevated feelings which they imagine incapable of emanating from any source other than religion, have an honest aversion to anything tending – as they think – to dry up the fountain of such feelings.

The second is the quote by humanist philosopher Brendan Larvor that Humanism is ‘the joint denial of theism and nihilism’ and how important both parts of that are.

The third is the second part of the ‘vision’ statement of the British Humanist Association, which is that we want ‘non-religious people to be confident in living ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity’ and how important that aim of ours is – even if it doesn’t appear as important to those of us who are already pretty confident (as our members tend to be!)

3 comments

  1. Bob

    Totally agree with that Larvor quote. I’ve put the point in debate a number of times a slightly different way. In response to the accusation that atheism leads to nihilism, you can point out that actually there are two propositions to atheistic nihilism:

    1. Life without God is without objective meaning or without objective value etc.
    2. There is no God.

    Humanists tend to agree with the latter. But the first proposition, which is closer to the essence of nihilism, is shared not by the humanist, but by most religious thinkers. Nihilists and theists of this variety are much closer together in that they agree “Life without God is without objective meaning or without objective value etc”. Denying this is the novelty of Humanism, the humanist ‘turn’.

  2. Adrian Bailey

    On point 2: I make a distinction (somewhat artificially, I admit) between the point, the purpose and the meaning of life. I don’t think life has a point, but it definitely has purpose and meaning, which are the frame and the content of life, respectively.

    On point 3: I think this can’t be helped by the existence of church schools, and by the nature of many RE syllabuses which advertise religion as something that makes life fulfilling.

  3. Steve Clapman

    Just read Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” where he explains why left wing/liberal/educated people find it difficult to understand the right wing/religious mind.

    Our version of morality concerns utilitarionism, where’s the harm? There’s includes that plus loyalty, authority and sanctity.

    Would be interested in your views on his thesis

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