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A Post-Christian America and the Foundations of Morality

painted photograph of Cades Cove church isolated in Smoky Mountains

The trend of American secularization continues. A recent report by the Pew Research Committee notes the accelerating number of “nones” – those without formal religious affiliation – in the U.S., and finds that under several different scenarios America will be a Christian minority nation by 2070. The report estimates that as of 2020 approximately 64% of Americans identified as Christian. While explanations for the shift away from Christianity are multiple and complicated, it echoes patterns of secularization in Europe.

There are reasons to be wary of overinterpretation, as a lack of affiliation of formal religion does not mean that someone is not informally religious, spiritual, or otherwise wedded to a guiding belief system. Similarly, Christianity is no monolith and encompasses a wide array of sects with varying religious commitments (and varying levels of commitment to those commitments). But, big picture, the church as an institution is in demographic decline.

Religious practices organize people socially and culturally, not just theologically. And whatever its democratic woes, Christianity continues to have a powerful role in American politics, as reflected by recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion and school prayer.

Of particular philosophical interest, religion provides a (plausibly) objective basis to morality and many believers worry about the metaphysical foundations of ethics absent something like a god.

Put differently, what underpins morality in an irreligious society? And relatedly, what is the worry of having a moral system without foundations?

Questions of morality are familiar. Is killing wrong? What about in self-defense? Is it okay to break a promise? To tell a white lie? To collect and sell data from the users of an app? However, there are also questions we can have about morality itself. This is the domain of metaethics. One of the most prominent debates within metaethics concerns the objectivity and reality of ethical claims.

Consider a claim like: “murder is wrong.” A natural interpretation is that this statement is making a factual claim about the moral wrongness of murder, and the claim is either true or false. (This is the claim of moral realists. Though in another tradition in metaethics, called noncognitivism, ethical claims are not treated as being true or false at all.) Assuming the ethical claim is true (or false), the next issue is explaining what makes it that way.

One answer is that something in the world makes the ethical claim true. For a religious or spiritual person, this something is often that a god commands it.

But even within religious thought, such a move is not without difficulties. Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma asks whether something is good because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is good. Nonetheless, religious traditions have additional resources to draw upon when it comes to the truth of ethical claims.

Absent religion, things get trickier. The Australian ethicist J.L. Mackie influentially argued that if morality is something in the world, it is an awfully strange thing. We know of no bits or bobs of the world that seem to constitute moral wrongness, we don’t know how to measure “ethicalness” or move it around, and there seems to be nothing physically different between lying to the police about what’s in your basement to save a refugee’s life or to save your heroin operation. What’s more, we might question what morality really explains. If asked to account for the actions of Adolf Hitler, one can appeal to his psychology, his politics, and the historical context. It is not obvious what additional information is provided by asserting that Hitler is also “evil.” This line has been argued most prominently by the philosopher Gilbert Harman.

Broadly speaking, an account of morality that places moral facts – the wrongness of eating meat, for example – out in the world appears somewhat out of step with our best current scientific accounts.

Evolution makes this concern more acute. Philosophers Sharon Street and Richard Joyce have both argued that evolutionary theory “debunks” morality, where debunking arguments are a specific kind of objection which attempt to show that the causal origin of something undermines its justifications. In particular, evolution is responsive to fitness, not responsive to truth, so the concern is that there is no reason to expect from our evolutionary history that we would have evolved with even an approximately correct set of moral beliefs. The idea is we evolved our general moral commitments because cooperative humans that did not kill and steal from each other constantly were reproductively successful, not because they were perceiving the moral structure of the universe.

This argument is especially powerful because it undermines the evidence on which one would build a case for the metaphysical foundations of ethics. Our everyday moral talk often treats morality as if it is true – we refer to murder as wrong and helping the needy as good. Ethicists take this seriously as (at least initial) evidence for the objective reality of morality, absent compelling reasons to think otherwise. However, if our moral intuitions can be effectively explained by evolution, then the evidentiary basis on which moral realism derives its plausibility evaporates.

These arguments have not gone unaddressed and the debate continues. For example, we presumably did not evolve to learn particle physics, and yet no one considers it “debunked” by evolution.

Other philosophers take completely different approaches. Immanuel Kant famously argued that our morality is rooted in our nature as rational beings that can act in accordance with reason. His work suggests that the truth of moral claims is not written in the stars. Instead, as free-willed rational creatures, it is our duty to recognize the force of moral law. The appeal of approaches like Kant’s is that there can be objective answers to moral questions, even if the foundation of morality lies in our own nature rather than some thing out in the world.

Still, we might ask why all these questions of moral foundations matter at all, and whether religion actually solves the problem. For those concerned by Christianity’s decline, the ultimate fear is likely an amoral world where nothing is right or wrong. Let us grant for the moment that if god/gods exist, then murder is really wrong (here using the time-honored philosophical practice of strategically italicizing words). It is not a glorified opinion. It is not wrong on the basis of reasons or political commitments. It is not only wrong for a given person, or a given society. It is not wrong because we are a specific species with a specific evolutionary history of cooperation that has given us a hard to shake set of psychological intuitions about morality. It is really, truly, against-the-divine-structure-of-the-universe Wrong.

Note that this moral fact does not depend on whether people are religious. It instead depends on the truth of some religious tenets. The popularity of religion is simply unrelated to questions of the existence of moral foundations.

Alternatively, our overriding concern might not be a philosophical one related to whether or not there is an objective basis to morality, but a social one regarding people’s belief in moral foundations. If no one believes that anything is really wrong, so the worry goes, then what is to stop absolute hooliganism? We need the belief in moral foundations for their salutary effect on behavior. This, however, is ultimately a scientific question about, first, whether the religiously unaffiliated are less likely to believe in objective morality, and second, if those who do not believe in objective morality behave less ethically (by conventional standards).

Some research suggests that religious people and secular people have slightly different ethical commitments and behaviors, but there is no evidence of general amorality. If anything, the rise of the “nones” spurs objections to some religiously motivated practices – like abortion bans – on explicitly ethical grounds. Changes in America’s religious landscape will result in changes in its moral landscape, but this does not entail Americans being generally less concerned with morality. And while philosophers and others may be fascinated by the (possible) foundations of morality as an intellectual project, it remains to be seen whether this project is genuinely socially motivated. We simply are, descriptively, organisms that care about ethics. Most of us anyway.

Dating and Choice in the Digital Age

Black and white photograph of a couple in an art gallery, standing in front of a picture, the woman is laughing

Technology has radically invaded every aspect of human life.  Dating and relationships in particular have been transformed in the digital age. One out of four straight couples meet online, and for gay couples, that number rises to two out of three.

Online daters who find relationships appear to move more quickly toward firm commitment. Half of couples who met online get married in the fourth year of their relationship, compared to their counterparts who met face-to-face (who tend to get wed in their tenth year). Furthermore, married couples who met online express marginally greater satisfaction in their marriages than other couples, and their unions are somewhat less likely to dissolve.

Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld suggests that the faster track to marriage via online dating reflects a more refined ability to select and discern qualities in one’s mate in advance. Online dating allows for garnering extensive knowledge about a potential partner that would take longer to acquire over a face-to-face acquaintance. Perhaps nowhere else is the ability to make a choice so valued as in seeking out a life partner. Popular writers announce their successes via developing algorithms. It seems technology enables us to put the “data” in “dating.”

Researchers have noted an increase in ”assortative mating,” or dating people who are within one’s socioeconomic class and experience. A South Korean study found that while online dating does not tend to unite people on the basis of geographical and occupational similarity, it can strengthen demographic similarities in terms of education and class.

This ability to fine-tune one’s pool of partners to reflect one’s own background can bring about ethical concerns. Is seeking out highly similar partners a morally weighted issue? On the one hand, it suggests a robust shift in the way that people perceive life partners. In America, sociologist Andrew Cherlin and historian Stephanie Coontz note three distinct eras of relationships: institutional marriage (dating roughly from America’s founding); companionate marriage (approximately 1850-1965) and self-expressive marriage (from approximately 1965 to the present). Describing these different social expectations of marriage resembles a progression along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as noted by Eli Finkel in the New York Times. Institutional marriage revolved significantly around physical survival in a settler-colonialist environment. In contrast, companionate marriage reflected urbanization and the luxury of seeking out a supportive, engaging partner. Self-expressive marriage places the highest expectations of all on a partner – seeing in a partner the opportunity to explore and relish the ever-changing and growing dimensions of the self and the other. Being able to choose a partner with a similar lifestyle would seem to ensure greater mutual understanding according to this latter norm of self-expression.

In light of this relatively new social conception of what a life partner can offer, it is not surprising that individuals are embracing the range and nuance of choice proffered by online dating. At the same time, there exist unfortunate side-effects of assortative dating (i.e., individuals choosing to date others from a similar socioeconomic background). While it appears to be a strategy with important payoffs for individuals, it can also reflect and repeat wider social inequalities by concentrating privilege within a particular class.

Racial bias is a still more fraught aspect of online dating. Whereas in real life, it may be easier to sidestep unconscious bias by encountering individuals of different races face-to-face in their full personalities, online dating offers increased opportunities to self-select dates of one’s own race via pressing a button or swiping left.  

A similar background would seem to be a reasonably valid criterion for choosing one’s dates, especially if one is searching for a life partner. Given the burden we now place on life partners to promote self-expression, it is not surprising that individuals seek out like-minded dates. At the same time, online dating can increase our likelihood of dating those of a similar race and class, further replicating the lack of class mobility and interracial relationships that already exist. There are several possible interpretations for this state of affairs.  

One possible interpretation is that people are simply insular – that “similar experiences” are defined in terms of outward markers of racial and class lines. Another interpretation is that such outward markers do radically determine our experiences to the point that there are little points of commonality which would be desirable in a partnership conceived in terms of mutual self-expression. Either interpretation suggests that we are a long way off from equality, in terms of how we conceive self and other, or in terms of how particular markers that should not determine our socioeconomic status continue to radically differentiate and separate us according to arbitrary lines.  

Is there an ethical obligation to embrace diversity in one’s dating life?  While there is certainly ethical value in examining one’s unconscious and conscious beliefs for bias in choosing potential mates, the issue seems to extend beyond individual choices. Equal access to experiences of self-expression, self-actualization, and leisure for all in society would likely reduce class and racial prejudice and further enable people to connect on more interesting grounds than personal privilege.

Demographics, Refugees, and Immigration: What of the Expanding Moral Circle?

Anxieties over changing demographics, immigration, and refugees have been a key theme in Western politics over the past couple of years. A central flashpoint in the political debates leading up to the Brexit vote was a controversial poster from the “Leave” Campaign, depicting a line of Syrian refugees. In the United States, reports of racist taunting and vandalism have increased since the recent election. France will vote in presidential elections in 2017, and the National Front’s candidate Marine Le Pen is projected to have a strong showing. The National Front has also been associated primarily with its opposition to immigration, specifically immigration from Islamic countries. More generally, political sentiments that reject multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, in favor of nationalism and isolationism, have grown in popularity in both the United States and Western Europe.

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