The Foundations of Morality

Question from Matthew:
Hi there! In the “About” section of this site, one of the first things that’s mentioned is morality (and, later: “right from wrong”). Clearly, an atheist wouldn’t believe that morality is granted to us from on high. But, on the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that moral traditions as social norms are frequently rooted in the more religious past. Unless you’d suggest that religion was necessary at some point to establish a cultural moral foundation (which I hope you don’t!), I must ask: where do you think morality “comes from”?

I’m an atheist myself, but I’ve always found that making a rational inquiry from atheism towards universal morality doesn’t work. I know Sam Harris has some ideas on thinking about morality as a set of rules for optimizing social interactions, but I don’t feel that the way he approaches is addresses the issue in a practical way. What do you think? Why do you act morally? How and why do you think you would act morally if, ceteris paribus, religion had never existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
Morality comes from us, plain and simple. Appeals to universal or absolute morality always fall flat because even if there are absolute morals woven into the fabric of the universe, we have no way to know what they are. So we agree upon morals between ourselves, adjust them from time to time (Richard Dawkins calls it the shifting moral zeitgeist) and generally just run with them.

Before our ancestors had the capacity to decide on “social norms”, a certain amount of what we call morality had evolved naturally. There are regular articles about apes and monkeys showing a sense of fairness, gratitude, discipline and so forth, in controlled experiments and on their own time. This stuff tends to emerge because it’s beneficial to a group for everyone to be “good” to each other. To put it simply, morality as applied by modern humans has at least a partial evolutionary basis. (Of course, explaining that to very religious people may only antagonise them further.) So that – and simple empathy – is effectively my answer to the question of where morality “came from”. The specifics might be different without our society’s religious history, but the same core principles would still be there.

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