This weekend I had an interesting discussion about morality with a Catholic. What was interesting about it wasn’t just the conversation in and of itself; this guy was ironically in the Economics PhD program at UPenn with my ex-girlfriend and knew her, though about three or four years behind her (he didn’t finish the program). Small world!
Anyway, we started talking about morality and stuff: Dialoging about what constitutes morality from a non-theistic and from a Catholic perspective. He even mentioned Leah’s infamous conversion to Catholicism. He claimed that she was never really an atheist and I rejoined that she was an atheist, just not a well informed one (she even admitted this herself in her “about” page on why she started her blog). An atheist is just someone whose actions don’t reflect god-belief; essentially why Nietsche claimed God is dead.
Anyway, the thing I took from the conversation was that, from his Catholic perspective, morality is about self-improvement. The reason you don’t, say, murder people was because this would normalize murder and you’ll do it more and more. From my point of view, morality was about a social contract. Do in Rome as the Romans do. To explain this, I put forth my desert island analogy for where morality comes from:
Say there is a man living alone on a desert island. No other people or animals around. Can we list some things that this person can do that are immoral?
For a secularist, the obvious answer is “no” since there is no one to be immoral to, yet his answer to this was a “yes” since there are still things that he could do that could be considered “immoral” from a Catholic perspective; things that are damaging to the self.
I also likened morality to language, as a sort of cultural language. To take the desert analogy further, if the man had grown up on the island without anyone or any other animals around, would he have developed language? The answer is no if we look at feral children, so analogously I assumed the same would happen with morality.
We agreed that the end results of both of our views of morality lead to the same things, but he took morality itself as a First Principle, much like why Leah converted to Catholicism. Of course, I don’t agree with that First Principle so that is where we diverged. My first principle, I would say, is that I exist.
Why I think the conversation panned out the way it did without any animosity or confusion was because I made a conscious effort to “taboo” any potential conflict words or words with multiple possible interpretations, and I asked him to do the same. It made for a longer conversation, but also a more transparent one. Also, in person, people are much more likely to hold back their more offending views so that probably contributed to it as well. It might have also been some sort of Halo Effect since he really admires/d my ex for her intellect and work ethic.
Of course we didn’t actually finish the conversation (I would have liked to ask him some form of the Euthyphro Dilemma and why not take an empirical approach about self-improvement instead of assertions from Catholicism (Aristotle/Aquinas); we started heading in the direction when I asked him why working out and being healthy isn’t considered moral) because we were at a birthday party. But, at least it was fun to do that IRL and not on the Internet for once. Oddly enough, he never mentioned “god”. Probably because I’m pretty well known in my circle of friends for being an atheist. Though I only “came out” so to say when I started this blog… which was due to situations like this.