If you’re not going to investigate why things are as they are–and I don’t mean to criticize those who don’t if they’re doing other better things–you have a responsibility (at least for your own sake) to vet carefully whichever authority you let ask that question for you. For sure, by not asking it yourself, you do not make it go away. Somebody asks it, and somebody answers it, and the answer they give will affect you. The Why questions are the most important ones.
Here’s a obvious example. Lets say that you’ve been raised always to tell the truth and also to be charitable in pursuit of other people’s happiness. You may not ask why you should do those things, but other people have, and their answers influenced how the two values were instilled. Then you come to a moment when the two conflict: a truthful answer will hurt someone’s feelings. You may not reason it through at the time, but which value you choose to follow is determined by the answers you’ve been given to these questions: Why should you tell the truth? Why should you try to make other people happy?
If you think you should tell the truth because lying is inconvenient (for you who must remember it) and rude (to whomever you deceive), you might be inclined to do it if something more inconvenient or ruder comes along. If you think you should tell the truth because it’s impossible to predict outcomes with enough certainty to judge whether a lie is worthwhile, you might stubbornly refuse to lie even if you encounter a serious challenge. If you believe that you should tell the truth because the truth is somehow holy and lying offends God, you may not recognize the situation as a challenge at all.
The Why questions you may never have considered have a staggering effect on how you choose to live your everyday life. Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you have an affair? Do you move in with your boyfriend/girlfriend? Do you gossip about your neighbor? Do you avoid the homeless man on the street? Do you tweet about the Kardashians? (My 15 year old word processor insists that should be Carpathians. Does anyone tweet about the Carpathians?) All of these things are significantly (maybe predominantly) influenced by your basic understanding of why the world is how it is and why humans do what they do.
To put things simply, people who believe that the world was created by God, that humans were created by God, behave differently than those who believe that both the world and humanity are simply the results of an arbitrary, irrational, accidental system.
The results can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially in matters of ethics.
The naturalist answer is that these things are culturally developed, the natural combination of circumstance and psychology, and as such they have no de jure authority. They’re a sort of cultural prejudice with de facto authority by virtue of the members of the culture outnumbering any individual dissenter. If our current culture has developed (by the same method) values which differ from those of precious cultures, importing the values of the former culture into the current would be a sort of cultural imperialism, the past conquering the present, which it clearly has no right to do.
This can feel liberating when we’re told that we can reject “archaic” restrictions on enjoyable or personal things. But no one wants to argue that certain cultures, which approve the murder of non-members, have as much authority as our own culture which discourages murder. If our ethics are cultural products though, they only apply to participants of the authorizing culture. The answers given to the Why questions about ethics don’t seem to let us do what we would want to do, which is to object to obviously objectionable things like genocide.
The best available response to this difficulty is that some ethics are evolutionarily advantageous. Thus, since evolution applies equally we have a standard that supersedes culture. Unfortunately, valuing what is evolutionarily advantageous is itself a cultural value, and again not one we generally want to apply. (It’s cliché to talk about Nazis, but it’s also obvious that they were pursuing what was deemed to be evolutionarily advantageous. We all rightly find this horrible, but there is simply no naturalistic reason why we should assume that our horror shouldn’t be ignored.)
(Also this evolutionary assumption is factually inaccurate. The bulk of the values we have, ones which we don’t want to abolish, were not only developed in opposition to cultural assumptions, but in opposition to what occurred naturally for human beings. Any study of history can show this. Things like charity and human rights were taught to humanity, which has always eagerly pursued the opposites.)
So, while I suspect most of us are not going to spontaneously start a new genocide, we are nevertheless, more each day, accepting answers to the Why questions which would support us if we tried. Mostly we accept those answers because they remove from us to responsibility of being anything other than what we most easily want. Unfortunately, we pave the way for those who easily want horrible things. (And I would say we make it easier to want horrible things ourselves.)