The question regarding the interaction between religious persuasions, ontological beliefs, and morality and ethicality is by no means a new one. It is as controversial and convoluted now as it was when Socrates debated the topic with Plato and every bit as volatile as nitroglycerin. Before diving into this topic, I find it necessary to first operationally define some things, after which I will discuss why the question provokes such strong reactions. Only after the question is properly framed and posed will attempt to shed insight into the “question of morality” as it pertains to agnosticism.
What is agnosticism?
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins outlines a spectrum of theism ranging from the certainty of theism (or strong theism) to the certainty of no divine being (or strong atheism). Agnosticism is all the middle ground of uncertainty and can encompass impartiality and inclinations towards atheism or theism without commitment to either camp. For my purposes, I will focus on the skeptical end of the spectrum and define agnosticism as the philosophy of life-its meanings and origins-that does not include any specific religious influence beyond the purely cultural aspects of religion. Some would argue that agnosticism is a religious belief in its own right, but I believe this is a mix definition of the word, “belief,” and prefer to think of agnosticism as an object of the more general field of philosophy. Because I am focusing on the skeptical end of Dawkin’s spectrum, much of what I say below can be applied to atheism as well as agnosticism.
What is morality?
Morality is, most generally, a comprehensive view of what is and how to define right and wrong. Morality is different than ethics because morality deals in absolutes, whereas ethics are culturally based. For example, whether or not looking a superior in the eyes is a sign of respect or not is an ethical question, not a moral one because the answer is specific to a given culture. Abortion, and the question of when a fetus becomes a living human is a moral question because the answer transcends culture. This is at least a rough definition, a more complete definition would include a discussion of circumstances and contingencies, but this definition will suffice for this discussion.
Now that we’re on the same page in terminology, let us look at why this question provokes the responses it does. Many theists argue that the existence of real morality is contingent on the existence of God. This can quickly lead to the interpretations that (a) we are incapable of making moral decisions on our own and need an angel on our shoulder telling us what is right and wrong and (b) anyone who does not believe in God or angels cannot possibly listen to aforementioned angel and therefore cannot act in a moral way. Interpretation (a) is a debate about the Augustinian doctrine of Total Depravity, and is outside the scope of this article. Interpretation (b) is both arrogant and empirically false. Let us be clear atheists, agnostics, and theists of all denominations have all committed horrendous atrocities, but affiliates of each have also been responsible for research, actions, initiatives, etc. that have immeasurably benefited society. The question is, therefore, not “can agnostics be moral,” but “how does agnostic philosophy account for the origins of morality?” And here we come back to the original question.
How does the agnostic philosophy account for the origins of morality?
In agnostic philosophy, the teleologically loaded words of “right” and “wrong” can loosely be defined as “beneficial to society” and “beneficial to the individual at the expense of society,” respectively (once again, more complete definitions would contain a discussion of situation, contingency, and available information).
Dr. Steven Pinker, an atheist and the author of the book How The Mind Works, presents the view that morality is a bi-product of evolution such that humans have developed an aversion to things harmful to society and an affinity for things that are beneficial to society; in his view, it is these aversions and affinities that lead to the concepts of “wrong” and “right.” While clever, this argument falls through. First of all, it defies the evolutionary principle of natural selection, which acts on the individual, as it requires the concept of group selection, which has been shown to be non-existent. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology would imply that all our natural tendencies-including those to cheat and harm others to our benefit-are morally correct, which defies not only our loose definition above but also the moral principles of every major religion, which all have themes of self-denial and impulse suppression.
One could argue that while Pinker is wrong about human morality, his postulations are correct for a much earlier stage of evolution when populations and genomes were smaller. This is consistent with the research of developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who argued that children have an intrinsic concept of fairness. If this is true, then animals must also be moral creatures. Although this flies in the face of a great deal of sociological literature that defines humanity as “moral animals,” this is possible. However, given the technology available presently and in the foreseeable future, this claim is completely untestable. Personally, I am inclined to disagree. Animals, though they have been known to display extraordinary acts of compassion towards each other and towards humans, act purely on instinct. Moral action cannot be based on pure instinct, but on what is good for the population at large. Because animals lack remote contact with others of their kind (unless Skippy the water-skiing squirrel has also learned how to email or animals possess ESP), it is impossible for them to take the concerns of the whole population into account when they decide how to behave.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of the possible origins of morality, it does contain the two I find most plausible, and for the sake of brevity, I will end here. Given that neither of these possibilities can hold up in the face of empirical fact and logic, we are forced to either say that agnosticism cannot explain the origins of morality, and is there for fatally flawed as a view of the world, or that morality does not exist. If morality does not exist everything is governed by cultural ethics, which can have developed from pure chance, but nothing is “right” or “wrong” per se.