Monday, May 3, 2010

Where does my morality come from?

I haven't written a post in nearly a month.  To be honest, I just haven't been in the mood for writing.  I used to avoid these situations by writing several posts at once when I was in the mood to write, and delaying their publication so that the blog had regular posts.  I should go back to that strategy, rather than posting a whole bunch at once like I did recently.

I've been thinking about morality.  One of the constant challenges issued to atheists by the religious is, "Where does your morality come from?"  It's far from the zinger they think it is, and does nothing to support their case, even if we don't have an answer, but we can still discuss it.  Keep in mind that I am far from an expert on these things, but I'd still like to post my thoughts for discussion.

I do not believe there is such a thing as an objective morality, but most humans seem to share a few values most of the time.  I keep using the word 'most' because it's obvious to me that not everybody shares these values, or many people only share them when somebody is watching.

I think you only need one thing to develop a sense of morality like the majority of humans have.  That thing is empathy.  Empathy is the ability to feel what others feel, to understand their suffering.  I personally can empathise with both humans and animals.  That's one reason why I'm a supporter of wildlife conservation and animal rights.  I still have to get around to confronting my own meat-eating habits, and I recognise there is some hypocrisy on my part.

If we have the capacity for empathy, then we can use it as a foundation for morality.  I wouldn't want something to happen to me because it would cause me suffering.  I understand that it causes suffering for others, too.  Normally that isn't my problem, but with empathy, it is.  It hurts me to see another person or animal suffering, so I decide that the behaviour which caused the suffering is wrong.  That's the emotional response.

Also, from a purely intellectual point of view, I understand that we cannot have a society in which everybody is doing bad things to everybody else.

Of course, religious people will not find this answer acceptable, even if it's true, because it does not include the supernatural being(s) that they were hoping for.  They'll simply change the question to, "Where does your empathy come from?"  And if we answer that, they'll change the question again in a never-ending game of bullshit.

Interestingly, a reader just sent me a link to a Sam Harris talk on morality.  I'll watch it soon, then post more.  I wanted to get my initial thoughts out, without being 'tainted' by another person's opinion on the issue.


Anonymous said...

Empathy evolved as we became social creatures so that we would work for the good of the pack rather than only the self.
I don't see a BIG (I don't mean to shout but I don't think this has italics) problem with eating meat, just because we do need it to stay healthy, and mycoprotein(the only alternative to animal protein) has to be made from mushrooms. It would require a global reform to work though, but anyway...
Morality is just our name for it. Is a wolf immoral when it chases down and eats a fawn?
How about a 5-year-old human?
Is the human's family justified in then hunting down and murdering this animal?
What about the birds who pick scraps out of the teeth of crocodiles? Are either being moral in helping the other?
How about giving to the poor? Is letting some people live off the scraps of our incomes REALLY so different from letting them pick clean our teeth? Consider the effect of charity in many cases: people can function at the lowest level of society. End of.
I may well have lost my train of thought somewhere in that textwall, I'll handle any mistakes/misunderstandings as people respond.

Jim said...

While I can agree with the initial post, I tend to believe that morality came about when civilization came about. In order for any society to become anything more than roving packs of hunter/gatherers, a moral code needed to be set. I don't think people woke up one day, and, BAM!, they had morals. It probably started with someone writing down rules of conduct, or laws. Parents would then instill their children with these laws at younger and younger ages, and before long, early civilizations had morality.

The thing religious people get confused on is that morality is not inherent in humans. They don't realize that every single one of us is born with a clean-slate, and have to be taught morality. A child born and raised with a family who teaches that stealing is wrong, it's bad to hurt others, it's nice to give, etc., will grow up believing these things, and most likely pass them on.

Whereas a child born to parents who do not teach these values, and do not discourage hurtful or harmful behavior, will most likely end up never feeling sorry for anyone and will not pass on anything except hate to their children.

I hate to use Africa as an example (because, (morality alert) here in the US, it is an unwritten rule that if associate anything negative with Africa, you're a racist), but we can see the pictures of 5 year-old children with AK-47's walking around town doing whatever they want, and killing in cold-blood. It is obvious why these kids can do what they do. No one has taught them morality. No one has taught them the difference between right and wrong.

Hell, even in the Bible, Adam and Eve are not born with morality. They have to be taught a lesson in it by God. And what is the first lesson the Bible teaches kids? Morality, in the from of right and wrong.

To insist that God created us with morality is absurd, especially when Christian religions wave around a Bible that proves that man was NOT created with morality.

ANTZILLA said...

"God gave us morality" believe it or be killed.

Anonymous said...

I hope this doesn't hit a nerve...
But a good comparison is the armed children who terrorise because they don't know any better and the armed forces.
Both have death involved somewhere, at some level, the difference is that one abuses their power for their own gain(no I'm not taking a dig at the US army) while one actively endeavors(think that's spelt wrong, sorry) to do good. The difference is not the action, but the morality of the action, and the morality comes from caring about the consequences of the actions. We gain our morality from our sentience, our control over our instincts and our ability to hyoithesise about the repercussions.
Not god.
Morality does not belong in science when (only when) the only arguments are religious.
Again I think I lost my (intended) point. Apologies.

Anonymous said...


Feki said...

Ok Antzilla, I believe you = god gave us morality.

But given that I do not believe in god, do I still get to keep my morality?


ANTZILLA said...


pre 1950's

creationist: "God gave us morality" believe it or be killed.

atheist: "But given that I do not believe in god, do I still get to keep my morality"?

creationist: you die now.

Feki said...

Hehe, very true Antzilla.

The thing I don't quite get is at what age "god" gives christians morality.

Is if magically sent to christians while still inside the womb? Or is it magically grafted into their brains right after birth? Do they shed it every year like old skin?

I mean, since babies can surely discern between good and evil, why are christian parents allowed to tamper with this god-given, unspoiled and perfect morality?

I know my questions are completely inappropiate and amoral and that for this I will surely descent into a lake of fire, but please comment.

ANTZILLA said...

People have to be taught/observe/aquire there own morals.
So Christian parents have Christian morals that they try and pass on to their childern. The problem for Christians is they are intolerent of other versions of morals so to keep their childern "christian" they restrict the childs learning/observations/experiences that would change there ideas of morals.

Q) "Born again" christians have they aways hated gays or do they only hate after being "born again"?

Magnamune said...

ANTZILLA - that's a very good question. Not knowing any born-again christians, I can't say for sure, but I'll hazard a guess. It probably has little to do with being being born-again. If they hated gay's before hand, they are now justified. If not, they would still not hate gay's (English failure), though they'd be less vocal about that issue of morality.

This seems to be going well with answer then question, so I'll now ask:
Q) In the bible, it seems to insinuate that morality exists objective to God. If this is the case, how can people say God is good, despite the amount of Evil he commits? And why not worship the Devil, who is clearly less Evil than God?

sarahpuff333 said...

Anytime someone throws that question at me I hit them back with "where did God come from?"

A lot of the time I get the "I AM" answer which is a reference to the Bible... even farther from convincing me lol... the Bible is not at all a reliable source of anything because it is so old and has been changed so much. If any Christian would do their research into how the Bible was canonized they would learn this.

Saying that God has always been is just as good an explanation as the big bang theory. And as far as I've seen, science has showed it's face to me a whole lot more than God has lol.

So let's do good just because we want to make the world a better place, not because we're afraid to go to hell. Religion is just a form of mind control! :)

Jim said...

While I agree with your stance, I think we can re-word this statement:

"Saying that God has always been is just as good an explanation as the big bang theory."

It's not just as good. It doesn't even compare. The Big Bang Theory is among the best supported scientific proofs in human history. There are mountains of evidence supporting it. Everywhere you look in the sky (and even here on Earth) there is nothing but proof for this theory. The nature of space itself all but demands that the Big Bang Theory be correct.

Where as the argument that "God always was" holds no weight whatsoever. In fact, there is no proof anywhere. I (along with countless other atheists) have stated that I would gladly believe in a god were I given just one single piece of proof that is unquestionable.

sarahpuff333 said...

Alright, what I meant was, the Big Bang Theory is just as good of an explanation to the person who says that God always was because they don't understand it anymore than I can understand how God always was. The only difference is that they won't try to understand it, and if they did, they wouldn't believe in God.