I wonder about good and evil only existing in the mind. I think it opens up sticky issues like, if evil is just a construct, then what's to stop me from choosing evil ways (because if it exists in the mind only, then I get to define it)... or what's to make me listen to someone who feels I've worked evil against her (because if evil only exists in her mind, then she is defining it and I can disagree with the definition and be done with it).
I'm about to start arguing like a theologian and I know it and I hate the fact! A while back I found a book in the library called Belief or Nonbelief: A Confrontation. It's an excellent book, in many ways: a respectful dialogue between the atheist novelist Umberto Eco and the Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Eco asks all sorts of questions of Martini; Martini gets only one in reply. Martini's question, though, is the question, the one that always comes up: How is it that nonbelievers can still believe in some sort of morality?
Eco answers well, but nevertheless he certainly relies to some extent on his own ability to write in order to give his answer the force and seeming reasonableness that it does have, and frankly, while reading, I couldn't help feeling the similarity in tone to the Cardinal's responses on earlier issues. Yes, I think it's true: while atheists can defend their view of the world with the shining strength of reason and logic on almost every count, when it comes to morality, there are times when we're just arguing so as to make the question go away. We argue emotively. We argue from consequences. We argue in circles. We do everything we get mad at theologians for doing.
When I was first facing this problem of the lack of absolute morality built into the universe, I did consider belief in God as a solution. But it just really seemed like overkill. Accepting an even bigger uncertain proposition so as to get rid of the uncertainty in a proposition I really wanted to believe? Not on your life. If I'm going to believe something out of thin air in order to justify some notion of morality, then I'm not going to believe in God. Simple belief in morality will suffice. Why go further?
So that's my excuse. I'm about to give you some explanations of how atheists can be content to simply believe in morality and not in God. In theological fashion, I'm not going to face the issue on blank, even terms. Instead, to begin with, I'm going to deliberately choose the starting point that works most easily for me. This is LL's comment that:
And here's the other thing... as a person who has experienced the deep evil wrought by others (during my childhood), it is hard for me to let them off the hook with a thought of... well, it was, after all, only in my mind.
Let me tell you some other things that are only in your mind, LL. Love is only in your mind. Happiness is only in your mind. Hope is only in your mind. And guess what? Those things are all real anyway. So maybe morality is like love, and hope, and happiness. It's only in our minds, but life would be nothing without it.
It helps that my notion of morality is very directly predicated on happiness and hope. I'm approximately utilitarian. Explanation of where I vary from utilitarianism is too complicated for this post and will have to wait for another one, because I have yet to fully articulate it and so cannot yet summarise it neatly. Maybe after I write that post I've just unwisely promised you, quick and easy summary will be possible in future. But for now, let's stick with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that we should act in that fashion that produces the greatest total happiness for all people concerned. So, you see, I sneak the idea of the importance of happiness in with the perfectly certain proposition that happiness is real (I find it particularly beautiful that we can be more certain of the existence of happiness than we can of the existence of the external world. We experience happiness directly; the world is only observed through our senses, which might deceive us). For that matter, what is importance? Something is important if we think it is; 'importance' is an expression of value, and value is another one of those things that only exist in the human mind, but which it would be utterly stupid to discard.
So, you see, happiness is important in an almost universal sense because we all think it is important, pretty well every one of us. And since we're likely to be more happy if we band together and support each others' happiness, why not do so? Because, hey, if we act to promote happiness in general, there will be more happiness to go around.
(See the circular reasoning? We should act for maximum happiness, because if we did, there would be maximum happiness.
It's quite convincing even with the circles visible, isn't it?)
More to come, but please, give me some feedback now. How am I doing? Be honest.