Eugene Volokh has argued, quite convincingly to my mind, that even a nonreligious person's morality rests on some moral axiom that cannot be proved, but requires belief.
It seems kind of pedestrian, but it occurred to me recently that the issue of abortion illustrates this quite clearly. There really is no definitive argument that can win the abortion debate. A person can draw a moral line at conception, viability, ability to feel pain, birth or sentience. But that just begs the question, why that line? The answer is really just an affirmation of belief in some moral axiom. Some common axioms include:
- A human life deserves to be protected from conception.
- Until viability, the mother's decision about her body trump the rights of any fetus.
- Until the fetus can feel pain, you do no harm by aborting it.
- Until birth, the fetus is still part of the mother, and she should have the right to do it.
- Being human is about higher brain function, and until sentience is manifest, the fetus does not manifest the defining human trait.
Each of these is really just a statement of an axiom or article of faith. And even if I haven't quite captured the axiom in my statement, there is an axiom underlying the statement, which cannot be proved. (In drafting this post, I discovered Eugene Volokh already had this thought and wrote about it more eloquently than me here and here.)
Some tentative conclusions that follow from this insight:
- There may be some policy debates that turn on efficiency or effectiveness of policy, but underlying most debates is a difference between axioms or values.
- Since there is no logical argument or empirical test that can prove any moral axiom or value, the axiom must be based on feelings of right and wrong.
- It's a little disconcerting that reason, logic, and evidence have much less to do with policy preferences than our emotions.
- Except that it's not disconcerting if you have a theory of obtaining truth through feelings. Like religious people, who believe they can learn truth through the Holy Ghost.
- Nonreligious people are a distinct disadvantage for explaining their moral beliefs.
- Discussing or debating these theories is unlikely to change a person's opinion because it is unlikely to change the person's underlying values.
- While religious and nonreligious people can believe in the same values, the above makes me think that one of the fundamental divides in politics is belief in religion.
- The debate over same sex marriage is nothing more than a disagreement between two groups who have different feeling about the morality of homosexuality.
- While I deplore racism, it frankly makes me much more understanding of racism, since racists presumably follow their gut feelings.
- Christians have a distinct advantage for explaining why racism is wrong, since Christ's teaching that he is no respecter of persons, which I think precludes racist attitudes--another advantage for religion.
- Moral values derived from gut feelings can be changed by surrounding culture and upbringing, just as attitudes about race have changed over time.