Monday, July 23, 2007

The Question of Morality

As an atheist, I am often asked about morality. Specifically, religious people ask if I have any morals and if so, what I base them on. To most believers, all morality comes from God. I not only disagree with this, I find it repugnant. If I do something considered immoral, I certainly get the blame. And that’s fine with me because I accept responsibility for all my actions. But if I act morally, it is all God’s doing and I get no credit. I am responsible for those actions too. But God even gets credit for my good deeds. I hate it when I go out of my way to help someone just to have them say “Thank God.” That is just ridiculous. We are all responsible for what we do for good or ill. We deserve the blame and the credit.

A lot of religious people find it inconceivable that an atheist can have any moral standards. They often assume that we choose to be atheists specifically to avoid having to follow any moral code. Some bizarre people even ask why we don’t just run around killing and raping indiscriminately. This demonstrates a profound ignorance that I find nauseating. One wonders if that is what they would do if they didn’t feel constrained by God. They are basically saying that only God is capable of caring about people. Thankfully, these people are in the minority. But even those who accept that atheists can be moral usually make the assumption that if an atheist does have moral standards they are invariably due to religious upbringing or at least exposure to the religious influence permeating society. Some find it to be validation of the theory that God built a conscience into all humans so we would know right from wrong. And since religion has been monopolizing the arena of moral ethics worldwide for thousands of years, I can see why they are confused. But, if anything, atheists are more moral than religious people. And we have better reasons to be so. As my Dad used to say, “Don’t shit in your own backyard.” It’s crude but makes a point. We atheists know that this is our only chance at life. There are no mulligans, no do-overs. We don’t expect a glorious afterlife. If we foul the social climate or wind up in jail, we have wasted the gift of life on nothing. Not to mention that if we take a life, we know it is gone forever. There is no heaven and no ultimate justice. There is no reward.

Thinking themselves experts on morality, religious people often decry what they call moral relativism - the notion that what constitutes right and wrong or good and evil are not absolute but depend on the individual, group and circumstances. In some respects, they are right. All human cultures have developed strikingly similar moral codes. But moral questions don’t fit in categories of absolute black and white. There are many situations that even people of good conscious disagree about such as the death penalty, war, foreign aid, criminal justice and abortion. Even in the Bible and other scriptures there are clearly situations that demonstrate moral gray areas.

We humans do certainly view some specific behaviors as good or bad with fair consistency. But does that indicate the existence of a god-given moral law? Superficially, it is easy to see how one might think so, especially if one is predisposed to accept the notion of God in the first place. But I think we need to look at humans as a species and consider the long history of human evolution along with our interaction with our environment and each other. Looking at the miniscule variation in our genes from any individual to any other, one will realize that there is no reason to infer supernaturally mandated moral law. It seems reasonable to say that we think alike because we are alike. Humans vary no more than 0.2 percent in the active coding regions of our DNA. For all practical purposes, we are identical on a functional level. The major differences between human cultures are due to effects of our environment and experience.

I don’t want to perpetuate a false dichotomy. I’m sure there are other schools of thought. But let’s consider the two possibilities mentioned so far. One says that humans have a God-given, universal system of moral laws somehow imprinted on us that gives us the ability to tell right from wrong. It tells us how God wants us to act. This has nothing to do with what we value but what God values. It is a spiritual thing unrelated to our physical being or even our cognitive process. The common religious view is that people are naturally evil and can only act appropriately through the good graces of a benevolent deity. All wrongdoing is due to the conflict between our immoral nature and the divine spirit of God he puts inside us. Like I said, if we are good, the credit goes to God. If we are bad, we get the blame. Why we couldn’t be made with a better nature is not explained.

The second of these possible explanations for our general agreement about moral rules is that humans have evolved as a species with specific common instincts, behaviors, desires and values that cause us to care about our fellow humans and our own life. We have also evolved a complex intellect that allows us to see the benefit to ourselves in creating and abiding by moral laws and ethical codes so we can live in peace and happiness. The result of all this is that our moral codes turn out to be amazingly similar across cultures. In this view morals and ethics are evolved behaviors which give our species a better chance of survival. It doesn’t mean we are mindless meat puppets without choice but that we are predisposed to cooperate and value not only our lives but the lives of those of our social groups and, to some extent, all members of our species.

As biological organisms, humans cannot compete physically with most other species because we don’t have claws, fangs, armor, speed, size or strength like they have. Our major asset is our superior brain. We are tribal creatures that live and work together cooperatively for the mutual benefit of all. We don't operate totally on instinct. We can recognize that this behavior is necessary and it should be reinforced with rules. We can sympathize with the problems and needs of others. This is true even now when we are competing with other humans more often than wild animals. Not only do we have little genetic difference, but most of coding differences in our DNA are very minor and superficial. We are amazingly like each other no matter how outwardly different we appear.

Given these facts, and that the biggest determinant for differences in moral viewpoints is the heterogeneity of our cultures, it seems that the more compelling of the two possibilities is the scientific one. And even if the two possibilities were equally feasible, the scientific one invokes no unverifiable, unexplainable supernatural entities. On the level of pure reason, the religious notion of morality is unsupportable.

There is a very good website that explains morality from a logical and rational perspective that you might want to peruse. I covers a lot more than I did here and has some excellent references that can be helpful in your study of this question. It is called, The Bible of the Good and Moral Atheist I highly recommend it.


James Diggs said...

Good post man,

I think your evolution of morality proposal is very reasonable. I am not an atheist, and still consider myself a follower of Jesus, but I accept evolution for the origin of man and can see how even morality has also evolved over time. I think you can see this process even in scriptures as well as other writing through out the centuries where you can see community and society trying to figure it out; you can see the process. I mean at one time it was thought that it was moral to stone a person for adultery; thankfully most societies have moved passed that.

Most of the objections people will have against your proposal are based in trying to defend a crumbling religious paradigm. The doctrine of the fall for instance is based on a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis in which people then conclude that people are all born naturally evil. I think such a doctrine is an overstatement when taken so literally; so I would reject the idea that a literal sinfulness is somehow stamped on our DNA from birth.

I do think people are born selfish, not even in an immoral way necessarily, but in as much as when we are born our own needs are all we know. Over time we learn that the world doesn’t revolve around us (hopefully most of us learn this) and that we have a certain amount of responsibility for others. I think this is true for the individual as well as true for society and is very consistent with your belief in the evolution of morality.

As for having morality or goodness somehow stamped on us, I am comfortable leaning in to a degree of this in as much that as a follower of Christ I believe that we are created in the image of God. However, I would again still embrace your evolution of morality idea also. If there is something of God’s goodness stamped on us then it certainly has taken a process to really discover it and refine in civilization as well as a personal process for all of us in our own lives. Even more so I can see the possibility of God working with humanity over time as civilizations evolved as well. I don’t really think that the origins of morality has to be an either/or thing. Unfortunately a lot of unnecesary modern religious dogma prevents many people from seeing this possibility.

Anyway, I thought your thoughts on morality and its evolution was very well thought out; thanks for your post.



Will Friday said...

Thank you for those kind words, James. I am glad to see my post impressed you. I’m always happy to find thoughtful comments such as yours on my blog. I can see how scriptures show evolution of moral thinking, like from Jewish culture (Old Testament) to the Christian culture (New Testament) with influences from Pagan culture and then on to later schisms and formation of new sects. Religion is certainly one of the ways humans have tried to work out moral codes. Religion is a philosophy. Ethics and morals have always been a major question in philosophy. But I think that a philosophy is validated by the usefulness of the epistemology it employs. That’s where I think religious belief fails.

Philosophy must be based on something fundamental. Existence is fundamental. It is the irreducible primary. Consciousness cannot precede existence. Any philosophy that advocates existence emerging from consciousness is exactly backward. Clearly consciousness is dependent upon existence. The matter and energy which exist gave rise to consciousness. It cannot be the other way around. Consciousness cannot be basic because consciousness is defined as awareness of existents. So the idea of a supernatural creator God is contrary to reason. There is no consciousness without something to be conscious of. That is the definition of consciousness. No consciousness, whether it is called God or something else, could be the basis for all existence.

Thus, belief in God is a denial of reality. If natural laws are not absolute, if they depend on the whim of a supernatural consciousness, nothing can be counted on and facts are meaningless. And the notion that it is possible to learn things through revelation without observation and reason flow from this inverted epistemology. And making humans the creation and thus the property of a supernatural consciousness leads to abnegation of human rights on a fundamental level. Theology is such a subjective thing it makes us all subordinate to someone’s interpretation of vague mystical theories.

That has lead to some extreme abuses throughout history. But it isn’t the only faulty philosophy. At the very least, it is not a reasonable basis for moral and ethical codes. It denies the value of reason and rational thought. Reason is our only proper judge of values and our only useful and practical guide to action. Rationality is mankind’s basic virtue. It is what sets us apart from other life. Our three fundamental values are: reason, purpose and self-esteem. Each of us is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others. In order to avoid traps like religion and socialism, we must live for our own sake - neither sacrificing ourselves to others nor sacrificing others to us. Else what is the value of individual reason? This doesn’t mean we can’t be generous. And it is clear our happiness can be intertwined with the happiness of family and community. But our basic value must be our own survival as a rational being.

Working for rational self-interest, with the achievement of our own happiness is the highest moral purpose of human life. We are not just born selfish. We are properly selfish. Living for others is a mistaken philosophy. Personal altruism is fine if it makes you happy. But systematic altruism is just a way to thwart individual purpose and results in less happiness overall, not more. No one is responsible for the happiness of others. We are responsible for our own happiness. The world does not revolve around us but our life does. We are the ones who properly benefit from our life and actions.

This is my philosophical perspective which goes along with my scientific perspective to form a cohesive base of understanding. I acknowledge that I am only human and not perfect. I welcome other ideas and critiques of my work. My own ideas have evolved over the years. I am not adverse to change if there is good reason and sound logic.

All the best, my friend. I hope to hear from you again.

Anonymous said...

Although I do not possess all the knowledge that you seem to have on some of these matters, Will, your comment to Diggs seems to further my view that I have many similar views as yours. The happiness bit here in your comment of July 28th seems to fall into a pattern of my own thinking. I believe in being genuine. If I do something good for someone else, I have to receive some sort of benefit, if not materially or emotionally then I have to have a feeling inside of me that gives me joy to do whatever it is. I must be fair though, I have a selfish nature, by this I mean that my happiness comes from me being happy. Those folks who do so many good deeds and sacrifice so much to make other people happy, that is what it takes to make them happy that is why they enjoy being so generous and sacrificial, this still falls into your happiness rational.

Dragnet said...

I am still a bit perplexed by the circular nature of morality.
All of the Christian systems I have been exposed to tell us that we are ALL conceived and born of/in sin.
Yet the only way for us to propagate is to sin, yet again we are told to multiply. We are admonished to resist the flesh and spend our lives in prayer and meditation. How then can we go forth and multiply?
I have the misfortune of living in the same town as Fred Phelps and his "congregation". I can't find any good words to say about the man or his beliefs. His clan will stand on the street waving signs that Sept. 11th was Gods way of telling the US that they should not tolerate Fags. He has his 6 and 8 year old grandchildren holding up signs with stick figures performing anal sex on each other proclaiming that it is the US military that are the cause of it all. Signs that actually say "Thank God for 911"
How is this moral?

I respectfully reject the notion that we are responsible for others.
I think giving is exactly that, giving. To give is to not expect return. Most religious people give because they expect a return on their investment. To be responsible for someone else is to give them more power than they should have. I am responsible for myself and for the things I create. If I decide to have a child I am responsible for the care feeding and education of that child. Even if I do it ALL correctly there is a fair chance that they will have some chemical imbalance later in life that will cause them to behave in a way that is harmful to themselves or others. Am I responsible for this? I don’t think so. I would willingly accept the responsibility of helping them through what ever I can as long as I am physically able. That is what being a responsible parent is. I am not responsible for the actions of others ONLY for my own. As a global citizen I have some interest in making it a better place but I have no responsibility in this area per se. If however I decide to get involved I bare the responsibility of my actions as long as I am involved.
Should I choose to “opt out” I am also not allowed to share in the “common wealth” of my social environs.

As to creation/Intelligent design; It is my belief that if we were created or designed it was certainly not one of the most intelligent things to have happened. Why build something that is designed to fail? If you want your creation to behave the way you want them to then you should be in constant “intelligible” conversation with them. How intelligent is it to have allowed so many different “interpretations” of your intentions to have emerged.
The concepts of Good and Evil are as fundamental as Dark and Light. The “balance of Yin and Yang. Equal but opposite forces of nature. Taking it further, the positive and negative forces of atoms. Some things ADD to our societies and some things SUBTRACT. As humans living together we have evolved a sense of what is adding or taking from any given environment. Most people agree that Hitler was Evil. I posit that Hitler was a negative force on our society and need to be corrected. His elimination was the correction. As to Evil, I say, highly subjective, unless you are of course Jewish, Black, or any other target of his. I know my family would most certainly have been a target. Had he won would we be able to have this conversation in the same way? I doubt it.

Anyway I say too much and ramble so I will shut up for now.

fredshome said...

I've asked myself the same questions when touring the US (I'm in France where being an atheist is more or less the norm thankfully).

My take on this is that those people confuse morals with ethics. Ethics come from a pure reflection on the workings of society and the place you want to hold within it. Morals is an enforced code, often religious in origin (although presumably the origin is the same).

Another thing that I always found irritating is the concept of "not believing". I never was a "non believer" because there was nothing for me "not to believe" in. Or rather the list of things I don't believe in is infinite. So I don't spend time dwelling on the fact that I don't believe in the christian's god (or any other for that matter). It's a non-issue.
Religious people always found that very perplexing.

(anyway found my way here from your comments on the IMDB, so cheers from across the pond)