Morality Recap

Question from Sam:
Where do humans get their moral standards and conscience from?

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is, from each other, from their own instincts and from a long line of social ancestors.

My earlier piece on right and wrong answers your question in much greater detail. There’s also a short piece on the foundations of morality.

The question, and where you’re asking it, implies that God’s instructions via some sacred text would be the usual answer. Well, every sacred text has a lot of instructions even most religious people don’t use anymore, like killing people for eating shellfish or working on the wrong day. Those who use these texts as a moral guide are choosing which parts to use – but that means they’re judging the text based on some independent moral standard. Therefore, even believers are getting at least some of their ethics from the simple experience of being a human among humans.

Living Without God

Question from Sophia:
I don’t know how many atheists have been Christians before, but I have questions as a Christian. The idea that a God is there for forgiveness, mercy, and justice is very comforting to me. There are certain things humans are unable to do. For instance, law enforcement may fail, but our free will brings it’s own consequences and has its own justice. Let me make it clear now that I don’t believe in hell. Humans make their own hell. We live in one already, full of war and hate, but our responsibilities include keeping the beautiful things alive.

Moving on… I have specific questions. Feel free to answer any or all of these questions.

1. When someone fails you, like a parent, spouse, or even yourself, what gives you comfort?

2. I’m sure most atheists think that “doing the right thing” is important, but why are some things right and others wrong if these precedents aren’t set by a higher authority, but by our own twisted judgment?

3. If you were once part of a different religion and then turned to atheism, why? Please go further than saying that “Christians still do bad things, what’s the point.” (I get that too often. If that’s your viewpoint, that’s fine, just explain further.)

Answer by SmartLX:
At least half of all atheists in the Western world were once members of a religion, and many still are in an official sense even though their faith is gone. I was raised as a Catholic myself.

Law enforcement may well fail to punish the guilty for their crimes. Human nature endows us with empathy and therefore usually a measure of guilt for our malicious actions, regardless of whether we’re caught, but it’s still a fact that some crimes and awful deeds go completely unpunished. It does not follow that there must be an afterlife and an ultimate judge in order to catch those who escape justice. Justice is an ideal we strive for, not a necessary physical component of the universe. If there’s no judgement after death, it’s up to us humans to give as many people their just deserts while they’re alive, because no one else will, and that’s that. A thing is not made true simply because it would be better if it were true, or bad or unthinkable if it were false. (Few things described as “unthinkable” really are unthinkable; most of them are just unpleasant.)

To your specific questions, then.

1. Sometimes the same person who’s “failed me” or caused me trouble or harm is the one who gives me comfort afterwards; that’s what it means to apologise, and to atone. Aside from that, I’m not a complete misanthrope, because the entire human race never lets me down all at once. There’s always some good in someone somewhere.

2. Our collective sense of right and wrong has changed over time. Slavery has been declared more and more unambiguously wrong, for instance, while different forms of personal freedom have gradually achieved the status of universal human rights. That alone is a very good indicator that right and wrong are not determined by some ultimate authority and then irreversibly fixed. That said, our judgement as a society has had a very long time to un-twist itself, as we constantly strive for ethical and legal standards with the greatest benefit. What we call “right” and “wrong” is relatively stable these days and helps us get along pretty well, though they’re still making changes to laws and so on. If we don’t assume our morality is absolute, we can always improve it.

3. I didn’t declare myself an atheist because I thought Christians were bad. I realised that I didn’t believe in any gods anymore, let alone the Christian one. It was that simple. (Incidentally, while bad Christians don’t indicate the lack of a god, neither do good Christians indicate the presence of one.)

Approaches to Morality

Question from V:
Well, obviously you reject God.
As such i must assume you reject god-given moralities, and moral rules.
As such i would like to ask what are the moral rules you accept and your rational justification for them.

Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
I would say that I reject the idea that a God exists, rather than God himself. Rejecting God directly would require the assumption that there is a God to reject.

I covered the basics of atheist morality in a piece I wrote a few months ago. Read that if you like, but the main point I like to make is that you and I have two choices:
1. The heuristic approach: use the common qualities and shared experience of all (or most) humans to create ethical standards which are applicable in as many situations as possible. Constantly verify that adherence to the standards is beneficial to people, and revise the standards if it isn’t.
2. The absolutist approach: declare that one specific set of rules applies to everything, everywhere, and is supported by the authority of an all-powerful being – despite a complete lack of evidence for that being, or that if the being exists he/she/it actually endorses these rules.

It might be great if we all had a set of absolute, unchallengeable rules that guaranteed a good life and afterlife. It might also be a nightmare, as it is in various theocracies (Iran) and pseudo-theocracies (North Korea), but it would at least give a feeling of security. Unfortunately, until the absolute authority and eternal protective power of a deity is certain, nothing about such a system is truly absolute. Better to work with what we know we have.

So how do you differentiate between right and wrong?

Question from Meg:…well, see title. That was the whole question.

Answer by SmartLX:
In much the same way as you do from day to day, Meg. I have various ways of identifying events or actions which match my broad, generally unspoken definitions of “right” and “wrong”. I can use different objective criteria to analyse them intellectually, or it could be subconscious; I might just get a feeling and “know” when something is right or wrong. What you’re really asking is where all of this comes from, and the full answer is too big to cover in a short piece.

The intellectual aspects of moral judgement come from all over the place – lifelong cultivated ideas about fairness and justice, almost universally agreed-upon precepts such as that harm is to be minimised and people protected, ancient bits of philosophy such as the Golden Rule and ad hoc decisions when nothing else seems to apply.

The emotional side of morality, the conscience if you like, is partly instilled into us as soon as we gain the capacity to socialise with other people. We see what other people judge to be right and wrong, and we internalise some of those judgements. There’s also the simple human instinct of empathy, which has fairly clear roots in the human race’s long prehistory of precarious survival in close-knit tribes, where people really did help themselves by looking after others. (It reaches even farther back than that, to the earlier social primates from which we evolved, but I don’t know what you think about evolution so the tribe idea will suffice.) On an instinctual level, we see all other humans as our tribesmen and women even if we’ll never see them again, so the urge to help often extends beyond its pragmatic uses.

Christians tend to see it all differently. Not all of them subscribe to all of the following ideas, but they’re all widely accepted or at least known.
– Morals are absolute entities baked into the universe by God, and exist independently of human beings. What’s wrong is wrong, and nothing can change it.
– What we know about them was taught to us directly by God through the concept of sin, then the Ten Commandments (and the 600-odd other commandments that make up the Mosaic Law) and finally Jesus.
– Our own consciences are God himself telling us what’s right and wrong.

All three are entirely dependent on the existence of God. Now, when Christians try to comprehend atheism, unfortunately they often end up simply visualising a Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole cut out of it. Without God, of course, the whole thing collapses and they wonder how we manage to think about anything.

It can take them a while to understand that there are objective, earthly rationales for morality. Without belief in any godlike entity there’s no basis for thinking there are moral absolutes, but robust moral systems can be and have been created using very small, very simple assumptions that the whole human race can live with (even if philosophers like to argue over them).

This isn’t the whole answer, like I said, but I’ve already written a lot on the subject because the same basic question keeps coming up. Just put “morality” into the site’s search field in the top corner, and you’ll have a lot more to read.

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.

Pure Human

“This leads me to believe that everyone is a mix of angel or asshole, the ratios are determined by a variety of factors.”

Question from Edward:
First of all I am an atheist as well, but what I can’t figure out is: is a pure human selfish, or generous? I mean some people are asses some are good. My theory is every pure human is actually an evil selfish bastard, but conscience and ego makes most people good. I mean since we don’t have a feeling that bugs us when we do something good, conscience bugs us when we act like an ass. I’d like to know your thoughts about this.

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Edward,
That’s a really good question, and I recently found out the answer since I’ve been researching evolutionary biology, which also encompasses the science of human behavior.
Apparently, there are genes that guide just about everything, including our behaviors, and compassion, fear, ambiguity, moods, etc., can all be traced to genetics. This is not to say you are a victim of your DNA, but it is to say that you may be geared to behave in a certain way, so that the environment during your formative years can help wire your brain and help produce the chemical processes that activate certain genes. For example, mothers who were distant with their infants were more apt to produce children who lacked impulse control and empathy, since the nurturing from moms that form these connections in the frontal lobe were absent. And the environment theory blends in with my own experience. My mom raised me to be (too) empathetic, so I lose sleep nights or get depressed thinking about marine oil spills or the plight of circus animals.

I think it’s evolutionarily conducive to be selfish, and we’re programmed to be as such — to an extent — but since we are social beings, it’s also conducive to cooperate with one another.

This leads me to believe that everyone is a mix of angel or asshole, the ratios are determined by a variety of factors. And as an atheist, I just try to set a good example so I can represent atheists accurately. Counter to all the negative stereotypes, atheists actually have the lowest peer capita rates of imprisonment as well as divorce. In “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” (Sociology Compass, 2009), Phil Zuckerman compares the values and beliefs of religious people with those of the secular, and the latter were markedly less prejudiced, anti-Semitic, racist, dogmatic closed-minded and authoritarian. They were are also less supportive of the death penalty, less likely to favor harsh sentencing and the least supportive of torture.

I hope that helps, otherwise, I might lose sleep over my failing to answer your question properly. 😉

Moral Statements

“The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which shouldn’t be there anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.”

Question from C.L.H.:
I copied the following excerpt from a reader comments section of an online column titled “Is Atheism Livable?”

I was curious if you could respond concerning the the moral scenario described below…

So the actual question is “do moral statements constitute propositions that can be true or false”. The naturalists answer is that they do not, but rather codify behaviors which increase our ability to survive. For example, the statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” is not an objectively moral statement, but rather stems from the scientific fact that human society crumbles when people can murder others at will, thus making it difficult for us to survive. Morality, to the naturalist, is redefined to mean nothing more than “what we do to survive”. So to use a less ambiguous language, the naturalist is actually saying that “it is a fact that we won’t survive if we allow murder, and because we have an impulse to survive, we should all agree not to murder”. This type of thought cannot be legitimately be called “morality” because it doesn’t contain within itself any actual standard of what is “good” or “right” – just what is preferred by most of us. Typically the naturalist is okay with this.

The theist, on the other hand, is more of a realist about morality – he maintains that the moral statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” not only has the propositional/scientific factual content the naturalist maintains, but also that it stems from a deeper, transcendent law that is tied into the nature of the universe itself. In other words, killing innocent people is not wrong *merely* because society will collapse otherwise, but because killing people is simply *wrong*.

This type of moral realism is the default. The other completely flies in the face of our intuition about morality. For example, the statement “it is wrong to rape and murder young children” is wrong in all cases (I hope we all agree on that). The naturalist would argue that if we allow people to rape and murder young children at will, society will collapse and we won’t survive.

But one can certainly make up a situation in which this isn’t the case. Put the adult and the child on an island with no hope of rescue, the child is in a vegetative state with no sensation and no hope of waking up, and the adult will simply live out his days until he dies. Obviously should the adult rape and murder the child in this context, no society is damaged, and ultimately his action will have no negative consequence.
The naturalist is then forced to acknowledge that there is nothing immoral (by his definition) about the adults action in this situation. I have met one naturalist in my life who will concede this and affirm that nothing immoral has been done in this situation, and that one person is not something who I would say manages to function well on a day to day basis.

In any case, are any of the naturalists here willing to either
1) acknowledge that such an action is not immoral (if so I apologize but you are sick), or
2) explain why it is immoral using a naturalistic definition of morality (without resorting to something silly like “well he may be rescued later” – the situation is defined as described above)?

As I said, moral realism is the default position based on intuition and the obviousness of our collective everyday human experience. The burden of proof lies heavily on the one who claims that moral propositions don’t constitute true or false propositions. And the fact that a biological/evolutionary basis for moral behavior does not accomplish this task. All this does is affirm that the universe is such that moral behavior promotes life, and therefore affirms that life is good.

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists have already answered below the comment itself, but here goes.

In answer to (1), the action he describes is not immoral in the absolute sense he’s looking for, according to the usual non-supernatural view, but then nothing is. It’s immoral according to almost any objective basis you care to apply to it, but none of those count in his reckoning.

Thing is, if you go around saying that such a deed is wrong, the only people who would bother to contradict you are those who object to the absolutism in the statement, not people who actually think the deed is right. It doesn’t actually matter in a practical sense whether or not the universe has an inbuilt moral code which says it’s wrong.

Which is good, because even if it did we’ve got no way of knowing what that code is. Holy texts and philosophical works set rules and guidelines we all seem to agree on, but is that necessarily because they’re deliberately and explicitly instilled in all of us before birth? No, it’s probably just because we’re all human, we were all brought up in roughly the same society and we have many of the same values instilled in us by other people. Not all, of course, because we differ widely on thorny issues like abortion. Intuition only takes us so far.

The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which doesn’t rely on absolutism anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.

Why not be a bad’un?

“If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent God for forcing you into this behaviour.”

Question from Darron:
If there is no God, and there is no judgment. Why would anyone want to follow any kind of moral code of conduct.
I know if we didn’t of course, everything would fall apart. But most of us barley live to see 90. If your not born well off, why bother with hard work to get to the top. Why not lie, cheat, steal, kill, or sleep your way to the top.

Because lying, cheating and stealing doesn’t usually work in the long term, and because most people don’t actually like to do these things.

God’s isn’t the only judgement you need to worry about. If there isn’t a God or an afterlife, you have just this one short life available to you, and getting a reputation as a crook (let alone being convicted as one) can ruin that life and snuff out your potential. That’s a considerable risk you’re taking if you abandon ethics altogether.

You have an unspoken contract with those around you. Keep to the morals of your society as laid out and agreed upon, and others are expected to respect your moral fibre and be nice to you. People can’t see into your very being and determine what kind of man you are; your words and your actions are all they have to go on. If you genuinely behave like a “good person”, it makes no practical difference whether you really are one or not. And the world likes “good people”.

Another reason you want to follow a code of conduct is that you actually want to help people and make them happy. If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent that God pushes you into this behaviour by way of a carrot and a stick. But you don’t, do you? It’s gratifying to treat people right, isn’t it?

This is something moral absolutists don’t often consider: human nature, however it may have formed, actually tends toward what we think of as moral behaviour a great deal of the time without any coercion whatsoever. So the religious are happy that God commands them to behave the way they prefer to behave anyway.



“The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.”

Question from Louis:
Does an atheist believe in the concept of sin? Do they believe they can be punished for sin?

Not usually.

The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.

The competing idea that our bad deeds follow us around ethereally in life and cause misfortune requires the existence of either an interventionist god or an unknown and purposeful energy, which ancient Indian religions named karma, and atheists generally don’t believe in that either.

This doesn’t mean that atheists think bad deeds go entirely unpunished. That’s what the law is for, to begin with. Besides judicial punishment for illegal deeds, other selfish and destructive acts turn other people against us, and provoke revenge and grudges. They also make us feel guilty and want to atone.

That’s why we don’t need a god to enforce our morals. We have other people, and we have ourselves.


Moral Relativism

This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant.

Question from Steven:
I have been debating morality with a theist, and I was a little unclear about moral relativism and the implications of the law.

1. Does a moral relativist have to be an anarchist?
2. How can relativists agree upon any set of laws?
This is specifically in reference to Dawkins wanting the pope put in prison, and my friend is arguing that as a relativist you can’t judge a child rapist.

Thanks for the help.

This will become a reference point for similar questions, as this comes up a lot these days.

Firstly, this has no bearing on your discussion of the Pope and the Catholic Church, because child rape is wrong according to the tenets of the Church itself. Even if non-believers couldn’t judge the rapists and all accessories, the Church must do or be proven hypocritical. And now that’s out of the way.

Now to answer your questions directly:
1. No, relative (non-absolute) morals are still morals and still have worth and can still be supported. Same with laws, so anarchy is not necessary.
2. Relativists can and do agree on laws by examining their relative merit and picking what appear to be the best ones.

Moral relativism, in the sense your theist means, is the opposite of moral absolutism. Your theist thinks that God has set certain moral absolutes for us, which are supported by His divine authority, and without these no moral judgement can be supported – even the judgement that child rape is bad and should be punished.

Without being assured of the existence of a particular god as described in some religion, there’s no way to know what the universe’s absolute morals are, if any. This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant. In their place, we use very similar moral codes – most codes condemn murder and dishonesty, value generosity and compassion and so forth – but we support them with things besides gods: history, the law, basic human empathy, the reasoning of philosophers (including some religious ones), abstract principles like reciprocity and the minimisation of harm and so on.

According to any of the above, to take your instance, child rape is wrong and immoral, the perpetrators deserve punishment and the victims deserve protection and/or compensation. You can reason from first principles that this is the case, for example…
– via the law: child rape is explicitly outlawed nearly everywhere.
– via harm minimisation: child rape harms the child for no good reason.
– via human empathy: you wouldn’t want to feel what the child feels while being raped.
Therefore, especially when you use several approaches, you have an objective and literally reasonable basis for your moral judgements.

The issue is that any of these objective but non-absolute bases can be challenged and judgements dismissed, whereas the divine authority of hypothetical moral absolutes cannot be trumped. This is true, and as a moral relativist (again, anyone who isn’t a moral absolutist) one must be prepared to defend one’s morality when challenged. The important thing is that one can defend oneself with logic, precedent and documentation.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, defend only one thing: the existence of moral absolutes. If they can establish that, their righteousness in this matter is assured, but they have not and possibly cannot. (For more information, see my discussion of recent attempts.)

Ultimately, we must all choose on what to base our morality: on a combination of the flawed but sturdy and obviously real systems available to us on this planet (which usually work together very well), or on a supposedly perfect and all-encompassing moral code which may not even be there.