This essay was submitted to http://www.moralapologetics.com for their 2016 Writing Contest.
The Benefits Factor Argument in Secular Ethics
by Lyane Lopez (yep that is my name!)
A moral argument based on benefits is becoming a popular ethics theory among atheists. The claim is simple: If a particular moral is beneficial to us, then it would be logical to consider it good. Similar in essence to situational ethics, a moral argument from benefits is true only if moral goods are wholly beneficial. If the moral good brings benefit, not harm or loss, then it must be good for the person, persons or society. Although convincing on the surface, there are serious flaws with this deduction of morality.
Firstly, this theory isolates all kinds of goodness that is moral. Not every good comes from a moral that is a benefit. For instance, a soldier who dies to save the life of another; the soldier lost everything, his life, but he saved the life of his comrade. This is a moral that I call selfless. The atheist may argue if it was worth while for the soldier to die, then determine if his sacrifice was morally good from there. However, the soldier’s sacrifice alone is morally good, because it was done to save the life of his friend. It was selfless and it was done to preserve life, which are properties we understand to be good.
Second, this interpretation of morality restricts us from understanding goodness that comes from morals which are not beneficial. There is the trouble of isolating selfless morals then there is the error of misunderstanding them. Let’s refer back to my soldier illustration. The atheist can argue the soldier’s sacrifice to be immoral, if his sacrifice leads to nothing good. At this point, the atheist is restricted to view the soldier’s sacrifice as good, because of the possibility that it didn’t bring anything good. Let us view a less dramatic example: motherhood and fatherhood. A mother and father may sacrifice extra leisure time to care for their children. Yet it is a selfless act, which may lead to a mutual relationship with them.
For argument’s sake, lets say the atheist is right about judging morals based on their benefits. However, a dilemma arises when deciding who benefits from these morals. The legalization of same-sex marriage may have granted homosexuals the right to marry, but at what cost to those who yield to religious beliefs against homosexuality? As of now, many pastors have been incarcerated and sued simply for not marrying same-sex couples. Homosexuals gained from the Supreme Court’s decision, yet many pastors today have lost their right to exercise their religion. And to their dismay, these pastors are also severed unfairly. Under media and legal bias, their chances for defense are degraded, all for the sake of gay rights. If the atheist were to argue that the legalization of same-sex marriage was moral because it brought a great good, he would be wrong, since the decision also brought great loss for its opponents. One may argue their loss as an incarnation of justice, but does justice come from coercive means? What I mean to say is, if this decision was moral and the results brought justice, why violate pastors’ right to not marry gays, by forcing their hand in court? Why harass their conscience, label them as bigots and homophobes, and place a horrible guilt trip on them? A moral argument based on benefits simply cannot encompass moral complexity of this caliber. It is a complicated moral situation that needs a moral standard much more absolute and generous to solve it. Ultimately, a moral standard based on benefits will never profit everyone, because no matter the decision, someone or some people will be undermined.
In regard to standards, the atheist only has the natural world to judge the value of his morality. Using benefits as an indicator of good morals is a natural instinct for him, and is not entirely wrong. However, to say that it and other self-fulfilling factors are all we need to determine good morals, has him err from truth. Morality is a complicated science. There is a lot to consider when making a moral decision. There is the matter of believing and doing what is right. Arguments based on benefits focus on an arbitrary property, personal gain, since such gain is relative to each person. If the atheist is to establish a sound moral principle without the existence of God or a higher power, he must begin with standards that are timeless. Afterwards, he should find a source to substantiate why we must follow those standards, then trust them.
I conclude my statements with the following. To know, determine and measure goodness is an endeavoring task on its own. It is part of the adventure all humans partake in: discovering the meaning of their lives and all within it. To measure goodness by its beneficial value alone is a hindrance to understanding it, and it will ultimately lead to senseless hedonism. Curiously speaking, all humans follow some moral standard despite what they believe. I think it’s because there is a comprehension of morality written in all of us by our Creator. It exists to help us solve problems and learn the meaning of good and evil. It can be easy to justify absolute moral standards because God gave us knowledge of them, because he is the author of them, and because he is the ultimate good. He calls those morals good, because they are good for us, no matter what time they exist in. An atheist can be moral without believing in God, but it is because of God, that he is able to be moral.