Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whence Comes Morality?

Image courtesy of Google Images.

It’s a question that every atheist who has engaged in even a rudimentary conversation about religion has faced. Where do your morals come from? How do you know what is right and wrong if you don’t believe in god?

To begin to look at the question of whether morality originates from gods or from elsewhere, one should probably begin by looking at what morality is. I’m no philosopher, and I truly regret not being properly trained in philosophy, ethics, logic, and history of human thought. Someone who is well-educated in these things can undoubtedly critique my understanding of what morality is, and try to defeat my argument on those grounds. But, for my purposes here, I think it is probably adequate to define morality with a pretty standard dictionary type definition. Morality is the ability to make some sort of distinction between actions, thoughts, and behaviours that are right and wrong. It is a code of human conduct which allows human societies to function effectively by providing us all with some stability and safety in our relationships with other people. We know that we are unlikely to be randomly killed by our next door neighbor on a Saturday morning simply because he wants to use our wheel-barrow for the day.

Does this morality come from god or is it human-made? Christians and religious people tend to assume that morality comes from their god, and that is why they have a hard time understanding or believing that atheists actually have morals. I am certain that many Christians truly believe that us atheists only behave properly in society because we are afraid of the laws of the land, which are all based on Judeo-Christian values. We only refrain from killing our own neighbours when we want to use their wheel-barrow because we don’t want to end up being prosecuted for murder and facing the consequences. And, we are quite happy to throw every moral out the window if there is no chance we’ll get caught. It should come as no surprise that my point of view is quite the opposite. I believe that morality is specifically a human quality. One could possibly argue whether animals have a moral code themselves – most animal species tend to be more comfortable with killing other species than their own, for example – or whether they simply behave according to their instincts which in turn evolved in such a way as to allow success of the species. But, even an animal that acts out of the ordinary and kills one of its own, unlikely feels wrong about it or accepts that it has behaved immorally. So, to me, morality is a human quality that not only is limited to humans, but is also relatively universal within humans. There are very large differences across our species in terms of what social or cultural behaviours are acceptable, but basic morality seems to be relatively uniform amongst us humans. Most human societies accept that certain behaviours are immoral. And, in my opinion, these behaviours that are defined as immoral are those which would eventually destroy that particular human society if it were left unchecked. For example, murder (defined as random and individual killing for self-profit) is pretty universally defined as immoral in human societies. Without that definition, a society would not exist in the first place. How could a human society develop and progress if random killings of your fellow neighbours was perfectly acceptable?

So, basic morality can be defined as a distinction between those behaviours that allow normal functioning of a human society and those that do not. In evolutionary terms, this makes sense. Morality would have developed as humans evolved into clans and eventually larger societies in order to allow this to happen. This is quite a different point of view than the Christian one which states that morality was injected into human society by God after the society was already in place. Think of the ten commandments. In the Biblical story of The Exodus, this moral code was given to a fully functional human society living together in a community. So, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, this means that up until the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they must have assumed that murder, theft, and perjury were quite acceptable. This is clearly a ludicrous idea. No human group could be organized enough to even travel through the desert and arrive at Mount Sinai in the first place if they were killing each other randomly, lying, and stealing from each other, and if they didn’t even know that there was anything wrong with those behaviours.

Our modern Western societies are based on Judeo-Christian values, say Christians. Many American Christians truly believe that the erosion of their society is largely due to a drifting away from Biblical values and that if they could only get their society to return to those values by removing abortion, re-introducing prayer in schools etc., then their society would be much better off. Based on Biblical values? Really? Look at that objectively for a moment. You don’t need me to recite horrific Biblical laws to realize that our society is not based on Judeo-Christian values at all. Christians who delude themselves into thinking that our society is based on Biblical values clearly ignore much (most even) of those Biblical values. Go read through the parts of the Bible that deal with the law and think about how much our society is based on those archaic and barbaric agriculturally-based laws. What our laws appear at first (if you have the Christian bias) to be based on is a few cherry-picked parts of the Bible such as “Thou shalt not kill”. The reason it might appear that our societies are based on Biblical law is that our societies’ laws are grounded in human morality, and a bit of human morality does appear from time to time in the Bible. So, there is some minor coincidental cross-over between morality and Biblical law, but to conclude from that that our modern societies are grounded in Biblical morality is ludicrous and ignorant.

So, as an atheist, where do your morals come from? How do you know what is right and wrong if you don’t believe in god? My morals come from being human. My morals come from the evolution of humans in societies that would never have come to exist in the first place had human morality not developed. Are morals relative or absolute? Christians often hold the view that they are absolute: murder, abortion, euthanasia, lying are all morally wrong no matter what. Christians also often hold the view that atheists are moral relativists. That morality depends on your point of view. What do I, as an atheist, believe about moral absolutism vs. moral relativism? I believe that morality is absolute within human societies. Within the society I live in, murder is absolutely wrong. It is not relative. It is hard to imagine a scenario where murder (true murder, not just killing) is morally acceptable. However, morality is relative in the sense of the greater universe. Morality is a human quality, so without humans there is no morality. Once we’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs, murder (a concept defined by our humanity after all) is no longer immoral. How could it be? We define murder as a human killing another human, so if there were no humans how could murder even exist, let alone how could it be defined as moral or not?

I don’t think this is the time to discuss societies’ loopholes for introducing killing in a morally acceptable manner, but there are certainly examples of such. War is the most obvious example in which a human killing another human is considered quite morally acceptable. There are other examples, and they generally involve killing a person who is considered a social outcast from the societal group doing the killing, a viewpoint that fits perfectly with the development of morality from an evolutionary point of view. Why would killing someone from another clan or a competing societal group be considered immoral if it might actually help your group? This leads me to another topic that I may deal with at a later date: that atheists actually often have higher morals than religious people. Those who define their morality according to their religion are limited to that religion’s point of view of morality. Many religious people seem to be the most fervent supporters of going off to war to fight evil by killing other people. I don’t know many atheists who are so keen to set aside their belief that killing is wrong just because they are facing a different culture. Maybe there are no atheists in a fox-hole for a very good reason.

As always, one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens, states it here more eloquently than I can.