Unicorns and Morals: Let’s Be Consistent

Imagine overhearing someone say:

“I love my unicorn Billy. He is the best imaginary friend! He always encourages me when I’m feeling down and he makes the rainbow shine so bright. Billy is the best unicorn friend ever!”

Clearly, this is a delusional set of beliefs and it sounds simply crazy. Why? Because Billy the Unicorn does not exist. Unicorns in general do not exist. Neither do Flying Spaghetti Monsters. As Richard Dawkins explains:

There’s an infinite number of things that we can’t disprove. You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it’s wrong to say therefore we don’t need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don’t need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There’s an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there’s not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it.

Let’s build on Dawkins’ point a little bit: if there is no proof that these things exist, then we should stop talking about them as if they are real.

To paraphrase a popular saying: irrelevant until proven real.

No matter how comforting it is to talk about Billy the Unicorn, no matter how popular Unicorn Societies are, no matter how inspiring Unicorn Stories are, the rational decision is to simply stop talking about unicorns, because they are not real.

But what about conversations about morality? Why do we continue to talk about what is “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” “righteous” and “evil”?

By using such language, are we referring to an objective moral standard, some kind of moral law outside of ourselves? Is this a discussion about reality?

Or are we really just talking about ourselves and our own made-up ideas?

Moral realists, whether they are naturalists or theists, believe that the conversation about morality is reflective of something ‘out there.’ Moral realists think there are moral facts which propositions can be ‘about.’

But a significant number of people today are not moral realists. Many people totally reinterpret ethical statements as being merely or only neurobiological patterns, personal preferences, or cultural trends. Their attitude is: prove that moral facts are real and I’ll believe you. But until you can give scientific evidence that our talk about morality refers to something real, something outside of our limited subjectivity, well, I’m not buying it. (This is often a strategy to deny the moral argument for God’s existence).

Here’s my point: If you accept this kind of approach to morality, the honest approach is to stop using moral language altogether.

From this perspective, saying, “Racism is wrong,” is really just shorthand for something like, “My neurons trigger in an uncomfortable manner when they twitch against an incoming racism meme.” Or maybe it is explained as “its just that, given my culture, I don’t approve of racism.”

So here’s my appeal: if you don’t use Unicorn Stories or religious language as a shorthand to explain anything, because, say, you have found a scientific way to explain reality, then surely you can do this with regards to moral language.

I’m encouraging you to be honest with the rest of us and give up the all-too-convenient habit of talking as if morality were real.

Just say, “Oh, my neurons/gut/instincts react badly to that idea” or “My society/parents/peers have taught me to reject that approach” or “It doesn’t feel good to think that way.”

Substituting “neuronal discomfort,” “social programming,” or “bad feelings” is not that much harder than using the phrases “really bad,” “definitely wicked,” and “righteous judgment.”

If you don’t believe in unicorns – then you don’t make reference to Unicorn Stories.

If you don’t believe in God – then you don’t explain things with theology.

And if you don’t believe in morality – then you stop thinking about or describing the world in moral terms.

Imagine: a world without morality.