I asked an atheist friend of mine for some resources on the topic of ethics and morality from an atheist worldview, and one of the things he recommended was this debate. This is my first encounter with the official debate on the topic, and I am eager to explore more.
I like this video because it is approachable (as compared to how heavy, dense, and LONG philosophical readings can be), and it is concise and straightforward. It also gave me some vocabulary --you know how it is when you have some ideas floating around in your head but don't know how to say them? This video helped with the intuitions I have had on this topic but didn't know how to express.
There are a few comments I want to make.
First of all, let me say upfront that I do not like the word "morality," as I feel it is so loaded. I much prefer "ethics." But in this context, I'll just go with the terminology they used.
It took me awhile to get my mind around the idea of the "Social Contract." How can one base an entire position about morality on something we know did not actually ever happen, and is only a hypothetical? I think I got it eventually, though... and then the thought struck me: "God" is a hypothetical too. We do not know, prove-ably, that there is a man invisible to us who is keeping score and will reward or punish after we die, but we use him to regulate our behavior nonetheless. This is not much different than imagining what a perfectly rational society, where each person is blinded to his/her place in that society, would choose to include in their social contract.
There was a point Dr. Craig kept making, Dr. Kagan kept answering, but Dr. Craig just couldn't seem to get it through his head. This had to do with his "moral accountability" argument (I paraphrase): if naturalism is true, there is no God, our universe is going to burn up, and all life will disappear anyway, then our moral behavior is insignificant. Dr. Kagan answered him on this point at least three times: Our moral behavior may not have cosmic, eternal significance, but that is not the same as saying that it has no significance whatsoever.
I think the issue could have been better handled by talking not so much about significance, but about consequence. We see people doing immoral things all the time, and they seem to "get away with it." There is something in us that longs for there to be a God who can bring the justice we are powerless to effect. Many an evil man or woman has died without ever facing justice for their actions. It seems unfair, and we wish for there to be an afterlife where the scales will be balanced.
Of course, there is no way to prove an afterlife, nor what may or may not happen therein, and our mere collective wishing something does not necessitate that to be reality. But still... How does an atheistic morality deal with moral consequences vis a vis our desire for justice? Perhaps such a mindset brings an urgency to the picture of working for justice NOW. If there is no justice after death, then we cannot shrug our shoulders when we see a problem that seems too big for us and say, "God will deal with him/her." Not believing in justice after death compels us to be passionate about enacting justice before death.
But if you are powerless... If you are the torture victim. If you are the abused child. If you are the peasant whose land has been stolen. There is little comfort for you in the atheistic worldview, as far as I see it.
One angle I could consider the problem is that old axiom "Being good is its own reward." A person who makes moral choices, it sometimes happens, feels clean of heart and conscience. Morality brings a person closer to Love (which I currently define as connection between living beings), and Love infuses life with meaning and beauty. The quality and depth of a life lived morally is better, at the level of the soul, than that of one lived immorally, because it has more Love.
But this leads to the fact that the person who is living immorally does not always feel anything is missing. Especially if they have physical wealth to bring happiness to their lives, and can shield themselves from exposure to the suffering of others, how could they know how much better life could be, were they to choose to become more moral? It is the nature of our brains to adapt to our circumstances, and we are notoriously pitiful at imagining contingent circumstances in accurate ways.
So God may not be necessary for morality, but part of me wishes there is an afterlife where justice will be served, because at this point I do not see a satisfactory answer to this problem. But this is a problem that is unknowable, since, as I said, we cannot prove an afterlife. And just because I don't like certain facts of life, doesn't make them any less true.
I loved the part when Dr. Kagan led Dr. Craig into the trap of inadvertently admitting that the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement is actually immoral and it annihilates all three points Dr. Craig had been trying to make. Dr. Kagan did it gracefully and without even pointing out the conclusion, but I, for one, felt the conclusion hanging in the air. Brilliant.
(Dr. Craig should have acknowledged, though, that not all branches of Christianity believe in substitutionary atonement. He, rather presumptuously IMO, said "Christians believe...XYZ" rather than "the Christian tradition I am part of teaches...XYZ".)
At the question, "Why do people break the moral code?" I was irritated when they started talking about sin. When Christians use the word "sin," all logic, problem-solving, cooperation, and creativity is instantly short-circuited. Why did that child his his sister? Let's not try to figure out his motivation, the developmental level of his brain, the factors leading to his impatience such as hunger or tiredness, none of that. Nope. It's because "he has a sin nature." Puh-lease. Sin is such a non-thing. It is an abstract concept that explains nothing and solves nothing. It's a huge cop-out. It's one of my pet peeve words. Was Dr. Kagan trying to be deferential by saying "I, too think it has something to do with sin." Really?
There are all kinds of reasons people do not keep the moral code. Morality, as they were defining it in this debate, is largely rooted in reason, which is a function of the neocortex. (If I know my rudimentary brain physics correctly... errrmmm...) But we are not creatures of pure reason. We have many impulses and desires living inside us at once. The reptilian brain desires survival and reproduction. The mammalian brain desires pleasure and approval. On and on. When faced with moral choices, there are many internal factors to weigh, in addition to external ones. People break the moral code because the moral code is not the only possible choice.
Otherwise, it was a good debate, and I plan to read more on this topic.