We have recently been discussing deep philosophical matters, such as the ‘uncaused cause’. Not surprisingly we do not arrive at satisfactory answers. Such questions have been explored over two thousand years, and I do not doubt they will still be unanswered in 2000 years time.
But today I want to explore moral decisions. The answer is important because our understanding may have eternal consequences. There are two potential approaches. One approach starts from the assumption that the universe only contains matter. This belief necessarily excludes the spiritual, not just in its religious sense but in all of its meanings. We may not know how characteristics such as consciousness develop from matter but some would say that that may simply be because we do not know enough about matter itself. But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill. That conclusion has a major difficulty because it is at odds with morality: if our decisions and our sense of right and wrong are caused by matter alone we cannot condemn or praise any moral decision. At a pinch the best we can do is to apply greater punishment to the offender since the threat of this changes the balance between desirability and undesirability of our decision.
In fact we know from experience that moral decisions involve two elements. We are, or should be aware, that many such decisions may be affected by our internal tendencies. For instance the way we were individually brought up will affect our values. We will be influenced by recent happenings and longer term experiences. We will also be influenced by the social groups to which we belong (people like us). And a myriad more. We need to be fully aware of such tendencies because they may interfere and confuse our moral decisions which should always be guided by reason.
I notice that distinguished atheists such as Russell or Dawkins appear to have strong opinions on the morality of others often religious people or religious organisations. Somehow they forget that their targets are not responsible for their views since they are not free to make decisions. I am waiting to listen to the trial of some foul gangster. His defence might be to quote several philosophers over the last two millennia who would claim that the prisoner was not guilty because he was not free to do otherwise.
In fact everyone who has reached the age of reason accepts free will in practice, while agreeing that moral choices may be contaminated by other factors which need to be taken into account. Contingent to this is the ability to distinguish between the good action which ought to be followed and the evil action which ought to be avoided. The word ‘ought’ has no moral meaning for the material atheist. Believers of course may well argue that the obligation to behave morally can only be explained by a superior, spiritual, being who created us.