Often when you say you don’t believe in God, but you believe in right and wrong, you get the “well, then how can you possibly have a basis for right and wrong without God?”
Let me translate: “an action’s moral rightness is determined solely by the whim of an authority figure.” Or, more simply: “what makes something right or wrong is that the guy in charge said to not do it.”
What are you, six years old? Right and wrong determined solely because “I said so,” and because you get punished for doing what’s wrong? Give me a break. Child development time.
Lawrence Kohlberg posited a theory of moral development that I think is spot-on. It involves stages that a child progresses through while they develop morality. There are three stages that each have substages. The three stages are pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.
The pre-conventional stage is broken up into first Obedience and Punishment Orientation, and then Self-interest Orientation. When babies start out, right and wrong are determined by what you get punished for. Then, right and wrong are determined by what reward you get for doing the right hing or refraining from the wrong thing.
Next come the conventional stages: Interpersonal Accord and Conformity (the good girl/good boy attitude), and then Authority and Social-order Maintaining Orientation (law and order morality). In other words, as you develop, your sense of right and wring is determined by the way others perceive you: being seen as a “good boy” validates you personally and gives you personal satisfaction, so you act accordingly. From there, you develop into a stage where morality is based on its functions- an authority figure dictates the rules, and everyone is happy if they obey them, because society works smoother and life is easier when we are obedient and follow the rules.
After that come the post-conventional stages, which are Social Contract Orientation and then finally the apex of Universal Ethical Principles. At the social contract orientation, your morals are based on societally agreed-upon norms. it’s like the law and order orientation, except it relies on a general consensus instead of the dictates of an authoirty figure. You follow the rules we have all more or less agreed on because we have all agreed on the rules, and life/society/everything is better when we play together well, and we can expect and rely on reciprocal adherence to the social contract.
At the top is the idea of universal ethical principles, which mirrors Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, morality is defined by its universality. It’s not morality-by-committee and it’s not democratic. It’s acting morally based on principles that can be applied universally. If it would be okay for anyone to do it, it would be okay for you to do it.
The other way to formulate it? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Fear of hell and a wish for heaven are pre-conventional morality and I reject the idea that God, the highest of all beings, if he even exists, functions on the basest level. “It’s wrong because God said it was wrong” is at best, conventional morality. It’s mediocrity, nothing more. If God exists, I likewise reject the idea that he is not the highest, most advanced of all beings. He invites us up to his level, not the other way around. In other words, he invites us up the the supernal realm of universal ethical principles. The funny thing is, once you get to post-conventional morality, morality is no longer dependent on an authority figure, e.g., God.
But ditto for the Golden Rule. If it’s true, it’s not dependent on the will of deity for force and effect. It’s simply true because of its universality.
So, does post-conventional morality, not needing God for morality, mean we don’t need God? I don’t think so. That presumes that the only function of God is to dictate morality to us, and I think God is a lot bigger than just that one role, if there is a God at all.
A good argument can be made that God and morality are malleable enough so that no matter what our own moral development is, we can still no right and wrong. In other words, heaven and hell are there for people who need to be scared into doing what’s right, and lists of commandments are there for people who never quite make it to post-conventional morality.
There’s something to be said for that, since it’s avery inclusive view, and since Kohlberg’s theory assumes that not everyone develops all the way up to the post-conventional stages. If not everyone can reach post-conventional morality, then it makes sense for God to fashion a system that still compels those people to act morally.
What doesn’t make sense, though, is the idea that God would invent commandments and punishments at those lower levels that actually conflict with post-conventional morality. No universal ethical principle is violated by homosexuality. Homosexuality does not implicate the Golden Rule at all. So if God operates on Universal Principles, it would makes sense for his conventional commandments to be in line with those universal principles, not arbitrary ridiculous stuff.
If some people need commandments in order to act morally, then it would make sense for those commandments to be things like “don’t rape people,” i.e., things that are also universal principles. Not things like “don’t drink coffee,” that don’t even come into the Golden Rule’s analysis.
And I have spoken my peace on it.