Live Well, Do Good

Can we know what is morally right?

Brandon Sun, June 13, 2022 - David McConkey

Russian war crimes reported from Ukraine – like rape, torture and killing of civilians – are shocking. And that has led me to reflect on some big questions. What leads a country and its ordinary soldiers to commit such immoral acts? And its citizens to go along with an immoral war?

But can we know what is morally right? That also raises a related question that I get asked as a non-believer: wouldn’t people be more moral if they maintained traditional, religious values?

OK then. Russia (when it was the USSR) was also infamous for immorality during Stalin’s communist regime. That included the Holodomor in the 1930s, the government-induced famine in Ukraine that killed millions. Since communism was officially atheist, can’t this immorality be blamed on its non-belief in a god?

I would argue that not having a belief in a deity does not carry any moral implications. If there is a correlation, it could be the opposite of what you might believe. Many people no longer have a belief in a god in the modern, benign societies of western Europe. But most people still have a belief in a god in more repressive places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

In Russia today, Vladimir Putin comes as close to pure immorality as one might imagine. He and his fellow oligarchs have looted the wealth of Russia for their own aggrandizement. Putin is not only a gangster, but also a ruthless dictator who jails or murders his political opponents. The war crimes of the Ukraine invasion hopefully mark the beginning of the end of Putin’s immoral regime.

Wait a minute. I sense some readers are thinking that earlier I had too breezy a dismissal of atheism. OK, let’s get back to the USSR. Wouldn’t it be better if Russia had rejected atheism when it rejected communism? Wouldn’t it be better today if Russia had returned to traditional, religious values?

But the Christian religion has returned to Russia and is strongly promoted by Putin. Thousands of new churches have been built. The Russian Orthodox Church hails the rule of Putin as “a miracle of God.” The leading Orthodox cleric, Patriarch Kirill, could even qualify as a Putin oligarch: his personal wealth is in the billions.

The Russian Orthodox Church is active on the international stage as well, working with Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church to heal a rift in Christendom dating back 1,000 years. The Russian Orthodox Church has even blessed the Ukraine invasion as a holy war.

So that winds back to the original question: Can we know – as a country and as individuals – what is morally right? I think the answer is both simple and complicated.

The simple part of the answer to knowing what is moral: follow a good general principle. For example, the Golden Rule, which some assert is best phrased in the negative. So: do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated. Another principle is to aim to do the most good for the most people.

Now, the complicated part of the answer to knowing what is moral. This can be hard for us to see in Canada. Our society today is one of the most moral to have ever existed. So, in Canada, knowing what is moral is relatively obvious and straightforward.

But what if we lived in Russia? For generations, we would have lived with dysfunctionality and propaganda. Russia threw off the immorality of communism. But the leading worldviews there continue to be immoral: those of the Putin regime and those of the Russian Orthodox Church.

If we lived in Russia, would we see the war in Ukraine as immoral? Especially when we were drowning in propaganda and the war was seen to be sanctioned by our government, by our church and by our God?

If we lived in Russia, would we have the courage to speak out against the war? Especially when speaking out could lead to jail, or worse? This is not just a thought experiment. Someday the Russian people may have to acknowledge their complicity in war crimes, just as the German people did after the fall of their Nazi regime. Because, no matter how powerful and ruthless, a dictator in the end is enabled by the millions of people who go along.

Yes, we can know what is morally right; the war in Ukraine is a dramatic reminder. The war is also a chance to be grateful for our lives in Canada and to encourage Canada and Canadians to help Ukraine.

Thank goodness we do not face the terrible situation that confronts people who live in Ukraine. And confronts people who live in Russia.

* * * 

See also:

How Do You Be a Good Person?

Actually, Atheism is All You Need to Thrive . . . If You Do It Well

Getting to Good Ideas

Author Upends Beliefs About Human Kindness

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever

Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories

Moral Truth, Moral Progress and Moral Relativity

Live Well, Do Good

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