Thursday, November 10, 2011

Morality and Choice

There is a basic disconnect between morality and choice that many atheists, humanists, secular philosophers, and other non-religious thinkers are guilty of perpetuating throughout their rhetoric. Too often, I see these types of people present the fallacy that if you didn’t “choose to be” a certain way, then it logically follows that it’s okay to be that way.

Hands down, the most common place I see this is in discussions of homosexuality. Gay people and pro-gay activists need to stop trying to make a big deal about “being born this way.” I do understand where they are coming from, and I think it’s certainly true that people don’t just make a conscious choice to be gay, but who cares?

There are millions of people out there who find little children sexually attractive. Does anyone think they chose to be that way, anyone at all? I so often hear how no one would choose to be gay, since they suffer so much persecution, but if this is the case… who the hell would want to be a pedophile? There is no more hated stigma in America, bar none. I firmly believe most people hate pedophiles more than they hate murderers, and yet… there are pedophiles in the world and I doubt many of them chose to be attracted to children.

However, we expect pedophiles to overcome their natural urges. Why? Because it’s wrong to sexually prey on children. Pedophilia is wrong because it hurts innocent people. Homosexuality is not wrong, because it hurts no one. Homosexuality may offend people, but no one has the right to not be offended. No one can make you outraged without your permission, so if you are offended by something, blame yourself and get over it.

Interestingly, I saw this same argument used in a recent post at Atheist Revolution. The article is well written, and I found it interesting, but I found the overall message not something I could get on board with. I agree with many of the basic premises: I didn’t choose to be an atheist, I can’t choose to start believing in something that clearly doesn’t exist, and yet there are choices atheists do clearly make (the author mentions publicly self-identifying as atheist, speaking out for atheism, and writing about atheism as examples of atheism as a choice).

Hell, my Wednesday Word yesterday implied something similar, as I defined Atheitis as “a condition whereby a person is allergic to religion.” In a sense, that is the reality: my body has rejected atheism, or rather a specific part of my body (my brain) has.

But here’s the thing: if religion were true, it wouldn’t matter how we were born. If religion were true, it would be our duty as human beings to worship God, regardless of whether we heard Him, felt His presence, or even truly knew He was there. That’s what faith is, and to say, “I was born Atheist” doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Christians assume no one is born perfect. If anything, they see that as being what makes us human. Christians still expect people to live up to the standards dictated in the Bible, not to follow our impulses.

And in a sense, they’re right. I obviously don’t think one should take moral cues from the Bible, but you cannot find morality by looking inward at your natural self. The inner you is just an animal, an amoral beast that thinks only of itself (which is probably why it tells you how awesome you are and how important it is to reflect inwardly, instead of looking outward toward things greater than yourself). If you seek only to fulfill your potential as an ape that can speak, then follow your instincts.

However, if you want to be more, you borrow ideas from the collective sum of thousands of years of human thought and experience. In fact, I think not doing so is downright impossible; unless you are abandoned as an infant and raised by wolves, there is some part of you which you value as “you” which isn’t you at all, but is rather put in you by parents, teachers, friends, the media, and society as a whole. Even if you are a wild-child raised in the woods, whatever animal raises you will impart some behaviors which were not there naturally.

I know that we are not born as pre-programmed robots, nor are we born as blank slates. I think we can all agree the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. So, why do we expect others to simply accept the argument that “this is who I am” when a) you cannot prove whether a behavior is in-born or learned, and b) it doesn’t matter whether a behavior is natural or artificial?

Morality is concerned with what is right and wrong, and genetics has nothing to do with it. Morality is about the choices we make, not the motivations and inclinations underlying those choices. You can tell yourself that good intentions matter, but you can't fix a problem or correct an error with good intentions.


  1. For the most part, I agree with your post, however who decides what is right and wrong? There must be one truth by which morality hinges, correct?

  2. I pretty much agree with you. Too much reliance often is placed on the assertion that people do not choose to be homosexual. Mind you, there is increasing evidence for this. Although environmental factors can be important, it is becoming clear that there are other factors too, especially in terms of biology (what happens in the womb etc.).

    What irritates me is when anti-gay Christians come out with statements like "If homosexuality is okay because gays are born that way, then what about pedophiles?" There is all the difference in the world between two adult men or women engaging in a relationship by mutual consent and what goes on in adult-child sexual relationships.

    Not so many decades ago it was common for Christians to believe God created black people as an inferior type of human being. You might as well ask Christians "If religious privileges are to be bestowed on grounds of genuinely held religious belief, then logically shouldn't you support special rights for Christians who want to practice racial discrimination?"

  3. For the most part, I agree with your post, however who decides what is right and wrong? There must be one truth by which morality hinges, correct?

    This would need it's own post, but I think a safe place to begin is to not do things to other people that they don't want done to them. This is still vague and is sometimes not even correct, but it's a good starting point and rule of thumb. In a sense, I think the easy part is knowing what is wrong (it's usually pretty obvious to most people). The hard part is knowing what the right thing to do is, which generally also involves thinking of others, as well as yourself. However, there are also many actions which are simply neither right nor wrong, but are merely options (like... is it moral or immoral of me to have a salad for lunch while wearing jeans and a t-shirt?).

    "If religious privileges are to be bestowed on grounds of genuinely held religious belief, then logically shouldn't you support special rights for Christians who want to practice racial discrimination?"

    I wouldn't call them "special" rights, since we all have them, but there is protection for discrimination to some degree, just as atheists are protected in discriminating against Christians, if they so choose. It obviously depends on the degree of discrimination (you can't own anyone, or hurt them), but the very act of discrimination (which at its core, needs only happen within the mind of the bigot) is itself not a crime.

    And there are still plenty of Christians who justify racial bigotry with their religion. The Christian Identity movement is surprisingly popular, and to a lesser degree, there's also the entire Republican party. Outside of Christianity, you also have the caste system in India, which is espoused by the traditional Hindus in remote villages, and even racial discrimination among atheist Communists in China, where the Han people are often given preferential treatment by the government.

    You'll always have some people who think one group is not worthy of being treated as well as another, but I think you'll also always have people who see the inconsistency in this. We can only hope that as time goes on, the latter outnumber the former. I think it's in our nature to see someone slightly different and to dislike or even try to exploit them, but it is also within our power to overcome this shortcoming.


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