I used to believe in objective morality
From "you're evil" to "I think you're evil"
I was a devout Mormon growing up. It’s funny—I guess I expected the transition from “There’s an immortal benevolent god who created everything” to “Consciousness is just something dirt does”1 would be the biggest shift I’d experience going from Mormonism to atheism. But honestly? That transition was relatively tame. It was the second-order belief shifts that really impacted me.
In Mormonism, there’s a song they teach you as a kid which includes this verse:
Choose the right! Let no spirit of digression
Overcome you in the evil hour.
There’s the right and the wrong to ev’ry question;
Be safe thru inspiration’s pow’r.
That third line is my focus. There’s the right and the wrong to ev’ry question. A declaration that for every challenge you face, every trial you endure, every bad thing that happens, there’s a Correct™ way to handle it. There’s a Universal Authoritative Moral Code Of God™ you can use to arbitrate all conflicts and resolve all questions. I didn’t realize how big a deal this belief was until I left it behind.
The concept of objective morality backed by an omnipotent power is oddly appealing to my monkey brain. Irrationality can be a powerful coping mechanism in the face of unspeakable horrors. When I was Mormon, I’d see a natural disaster on the news and think “That’s awful, but it must be part of God’s plan for it to happen. Surely, he’s doing it for our benefit in the long run” and the disaster wouldn’t seem quite so horrible anymore. An awful tragedy made bearable because Pastor said God said it’s all gonna be okay.
I don’t believe in gods anymore, nor objective universal morality. Wrong and Right are things humans made up—like Money, and Status, and Gender—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. I still use moral frameworks all the time, but I use them knowing they are subjective.
The purpose of my moral framework is to make me happier over the long term. This is a selfish goal, but as a typical member of a deeply social species, I’m programmed to derive happiness from making other people happy2. So Right and Wrong end up defined in terms of how I interact with other people—Right things give happiness to people I care about, while Wrong things take that happiness away.
Funnily enough, this realization lead me to having morals I suspect are actually closer to those of Yeshua of Nazareth then I had when I worshipped him. From my new perspective, I find it striking just how simple the dude’s teachings were, and just how drastically many modern Christian sects overcomplicate them.
13 And verily Jesus was all like “Yo, you gotta love everyone all the time unconditionally, man — except when they disagree with you, look different from you, live far away from you, or are female or queer or poor.”
I enjoy imagining how certain human behaviors may have evolved3. What environmental pressures lead to the birth of morality? Oftentimes, things considered immoral4 are harmful to the group and thus to you. So I suppose it makes sense that we developed these complex emotional responses to different kinds of actions—but it’s also fascinating how variable these responses are between cultures!
Perhaps natural selection is the wrong frame of reference here—maybe communal morality is simply an “unintended” side-effect of high intelligence? Evolutionary left-overs, per se? I don’t know.
All this is not to claim I’ve cracked the code or have it all figured out—quite the opposite! I’m only just beginning to realize how little I know and how nuanced the real world is. It’s certainly not easy to navigate ambiguity, and there are times I wish I could return to utter faith in simple made-up rules. But I still feel grateful to be on the path I’m on.
The world isn’t delineated purely into black and white. It’s got all kinds of grays and midtones and even colors that aren’t grayscale5. At times, overwhelming. But overall? Much more beautiful.
If you read this whole post, congrats—I hereby declare you’ve done a morally good thing :P
Is this a huge oversimplification that doesn’t address all kinds of counterarguments and edge cases? Yes. Is this also my blog where I can say whatever I gosh-dang want? Yes.
Admittedly, I’m no expert here—and I’m sure there are countless papers about this written by those who are, but I’m too lazy to read a bunch of sociology papers right now.
Murder, theft, adultery, enjoying Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, etc.