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Is ‘morality by consensus’ the same as ‘mob rule’?

When I discuss morality with Christians, they often claim that their morality is superior because it’s ‘absolute’. I don’t know what they mean by an ‘absolute’ morality, but if their god did create an absolute morality, he sure did a lousy job of communicating it, since Christians all over the world disagree on what actually constitutes moral or immoral behaviour.

But when I think of ‘absolute’ morality, I always think of Dawkins’ response:

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon what you could almost call an intelligent design.

I like the idea of a morality based on consensus. I think most people are good moral agents, although we could always do better. And over the centuries, we do become better as we slowly expand our circle of awareness, become horrified at the injustices of the recent past, and grow a little.

But when I talk about morality by consensus, some Christians aren’t keen on that at all. “Isn’t that kind of a dangerous slope to go down?” they ask. “Why, that’s just the same as mob rule,” say others. I don’t think it is; consensus-driven morality has arrived at principles that are not a part of mob rule, like reciprocity and fairness. There’s no comparison.

This got me wondering: why are Christians so set against the idea of morality by consensus? Then I realised: it’s a way of making moral decisions without involving a god at all. Or, more to the point, a priest. For centuries, they’ve become used to dictating to the rest of us what’s moral, issuing proclamations — and being believed. With consensus-based morality, the priest is just another actor, and how this must rankle them.

1 Comment

  1. Daniel,

    I appreciate your thoughts in this piece. For what its worth, I agree.

    I should add that I appreciated even more the your "Is Life Meaningless?" debate with Ben Rae, which is what directed me here.

    Perhaps you would agree that the issues of morality and meaning are more basic – and therefore more interesting – than the existence of god(s), at least in the sense that the latter are imagined to satisfy the real human needs for the former.

    In this regard I have found the moral (and ethical) philosophical arguments of Philip Kitcher and Shelly Kagan cogent. I would imagine your are familiar with their work, which I was introduced to through on-line interviews and debates (see links below)

    In addition from your own cogent debate arguments, I was particularly struck how revealing Bob Rae's comments were of the orthodox Christian mindset. What a valuable distillation he offered up for critical examination and understanding.

    Finally, it was nice to encounter a fellow ex-Mormon – of about the same age – who has likely trod a similar path. I suppose such a feeling is no different than that felt by a believing Mormon encountering a rare "brother" among a sea of "gentiles."



    Philip Kitcher:

    1. Point of Inquiry interview (my first encounter)

    2. 2013 Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale (ITunes episodes 9-12)

    3. Interview on Think Atheist Radio (Episode 52)

    4. Book: The Ethical Project

    Shelly Kagan

    Is God necessary for Morality? William Lane Craig vs.Shelly Kagan

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