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.

19 thoughts on “So how do you differentiate between right and wrong?”

  1. Haha you are right about the God shaped hole, that’s exactly what I think of!
    I suppose you may be also be right about figuring out right and wrong for ourselves but without God, what do these matter? If we are not being held accountable for what we do then what does it matter if we go round raping and pillaging and getting up to all sorts of mischief? Once God is taken out of the picture then why not do whatever we want? Afetr all, there’s nothing to base it off, no judgement, just our own opinions. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!
    I’m actually really interested on what your thoughts on this are…maybe you have some karma-ry type ideas???

    1. Christians believe their lives is predestined, written in the book of life by God.. It’s been written.. God knows all, sees all.. And though he wrote the book, nothing happens without his okay, it’s the devil that tempts you to evil.. Personally, I’m offended at the way he plays bets in the book of Jobs.. But since it’s predestined just repent a you have at go in heaven.. Another thing that confuses me about the Alpha and Omega is the devils role.. He made him.. Knew what was gonna happen and Lucifer became the devil.. Then theres poor Lucifer.. Imagine you as a legitimate kind have your parents raise you right.. Then they adopt a kid whose ADHD destroying the house which your parents look proud of such accomplishment.. Then tell you, you gotta cater to him and sends you to your room for being indignant on their behalf all in the while still inforcing strict rules on you.. Supposedly devil is there to make sinners sufer and repent.. That seems like discipline to me..

  2. Karma would still imply a purposeful, ethereal, essentially godlike force at work, albeit without its own personality as such. There’s no evidence for something like that either.

    Consider how things actually “matter”. A thing matters to someone, or is important to someone. Without God, right and wrong obviously don’t matter to God, but they still matter to us.

    That is more than enough to affect our behaviour, because there are a lot of us and we generally care about each other. Think of rape, since you brought it up (it’s a mild one for a change; Christians bring up some really horrendous acts when asking this question). Most of us are revulsed by the idea of raping someone, which is why we don’t do it. We’re also revulsed by the idea of others raping people, and of course the idea of being raped, which is why we outlaw rape and do everything we can to protect people from it. Not everyone shares the revulsion, which is why rape still happens, but the perpetrators are up against the rest of the human race.

    The absence of an absolute authority doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as authority for practical purposes, and practical negative consequences (e.g. God’s judgement) are not the only reason why people don’t do bad things. Between intrinsic human empathy and near-universal consensus on simple ideas like harm and benefit, we can have a society where most people do their best to be good to each other. That’s what we usually see, even in places like Sweden where religious people are likely in the minority. Formalisation of moral ideas through religion is superfluous.

    1. if you think living entities just came by chance through chemicals what is the point in protecting some chemicals which are arranged in a particular way so that they can move on their own.even a molecule a wants to be stable by releasing energy .are you so much worried about its feeling .what terrible can happen just because some of misplacement of chemicals by force(rape) after all its just some chemicals trying to be stable or comfortable.define “protecting” scientifically?

      1. In the perspective you describe, we are each an arrangement of chemicals. However we are each an arrangement of chemicals with the ability to think, and our thoughts are focused on the other arrangements of chemicals around us. We dislike pain and suffering, so we are concerned about rape and other actions that cause pain to other arrangements of chemicals – not only because they might happen to us, but because we sympathise with the pain of those other arrangements and want to make things better for them.

        It doesn’t matter what we are really, because we’re surrounded by entities very similar to us and we care about their welfare as well as our own. We can’t help it. This is the fundamental basis of ethics and morality, not the edicts of a god we’ve never seen. We set the rules for ourselves.

  3. Do we really need a head-master in the sky to make us do good? Is getting into the heavenly scholar’s roll the point of our existence?Are we that childish as a species still?

    I am of the view that certain types of altruistic behavior have been ‘programmed’ into us through evolution – if no one cooperates then we are all each on his/ her own in the harsh world, making survival difficult.
    Even if you don’t believe in evolutionary programming of morality, I think we’ve all seen toddlers in the playground fighting with each other over things but then gradually learning the advantages of cooperation and having more fun through it. If its so obvious to toddlers, I’m sure it must be obvious to grown humans beings too.
    And I’ve seen the one’s who do not cooperate and want to keep all toys for themselves get shunned by others and not get any benefits of being in a group. Common sights on playgrounds around the world.
    To misquote Adam Smith “its as if an invisible hand drives us towards a cooperative equilibrium”.

    I was re-reading Richard Dawkins’ “the God Delusion”. I think the chapter there on morality is pretty good. Explains why a lot of religious people feel that without God there is no morality, and then goes on to explain a very sound basis for morality without the need for a god hypothesis.
    Highly recommend it.

    1. Do you feel altruism might be programmed into our evolution….since you reffered to Richard Dawkins, in his other book The selfish gene he talks about natural selection and how the DNA survived throughhout the ages. Altruism can be an inherent quality which we absorb in our infancy through other peoples reaction and behavior. But I feel its crazy to think that altruism is in the genes.

      1. I don’t see why it’s crazy to think that. There are lots of actions and behaviours which are not learned, because we perform them as newborns or even in the womb, or at least before we see anyone else do them; they’re called instincts. Likewise, we have plenty of instinctual emotions and urges, like the urge to have sex or the desire to protect a baby. Altruism is just another one of these.

        Altruism has a very understandable origin in the need to help other members of one’s social group, firstly because a strong group is directly beneficial to survival and secondly because most of the other individuals in the group shared many of the same genes. Today we may instinctually apply that to any other humans we meet, even if they’re not closely related, because for most of our evolutionary history our entire social world consisted of our relatives.

        Incidentally, in The Selfish Gene Dawkins emphasises that “selfish” genes do not necessarily result in selfish individuals, so this particular discussion was more or less settled about 40 years ago.

      1. This is a pure assertion, with no support behind it. It’s a way for believers to claim that people who deny God are not only liars but cowards.

        It can indeed be a relief for a lifelong believer to realise that there isn’t really a cosmic tyrant recording their every deed for later punishment, or a Hell to burn in, but it isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s just one of the positive side-effects of the realisation, based on the current arguments and evidence, that there isn’t likely to be anything like the God of the Bible.

  4. This book sounds interesting, I might give it try. After all there is not much use in trying to discuss things with each other if we don’t understand what the other is on about!
    I have heard a bit about this elusive Richard Dawkins, particularly that he entered a debate with John Lennox (who is basically one of my heroes), maybe you have heard of him?

  5. If there’s one thing Richard Dawkins isn’t, it’s elusive. The God Delusion was so widely read by religious apologists, and Dawkins’ appearances were so frequent (they’re all over YouTube, so check them out), that at least two dozen books have been written specifically to argue with him. (Most of their titles are variations of The God Delusion, such as The Dawkins Delusion and The God Solution.)

    TGD is certainly worth reading if you want to know more about atheism, and why people reject Christianity and other religions. I will warn you in advance that some religious people who are exposed to Richard Dawkins tend not to like him very much.

    I became aware of John Lennox when he did the first “debate” with Dawkins. It was arranged by a Christian foundation and set up so Dawkins could only elaborate on his own book and, if he’d stuck to the format, could not have responded to Lennox’s attacks until the last five minutes. While I’m not too familiar with Lennox’s arguments, I do know he sticks to the old canard that atheism is directly responsible for Communist atrocities, and there he loses a lot of people.

  6. As SmartLX’s said … Richard Dawkins is anything but elusive.
    I’ll try and go thru some of John Lennox’s arguments and try and watch the debate between him and Dawkins if its there on you tube.

    I will admit openly though that my effort may only be half-hearted as I really have gone thru arguments of a number of religious apologists of major faiths (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism majorly). I found some of them to be very passionate (and compassionate), yes. But all of them seem to lack any coherent logical, reasonable or scientific basis for what they say.
    And if Lennox turns out to be a cuckoo I may end up hating you for a while (normally not more than 1 day or so) for directing me to his stuff 🙂

    Logic, Reason and Science are fast becoming my holy trinity and I get upset when I read or hear stuff that tries to bypass or make short shrift of their holy rule!
    Just kidding 🙂

    Pls. do try and read Dawkins (esp TGD – I am sure you won’t regret it) and see if you find him to be a cuckoo and why. Don’t be offended by his jibes – he actually is pretty mild if you compare him to someone like Bill Maher.

  7. Hey … He is actually not a cuckoo. He’s a math prof no less.
    I liked that.
    I listened to a nine minute video of his on you tube:

    He seems genial enough but to me his arguments do not hold water – I identified “god of the gaps” reasoning in a lot of what he said (Science cannot answer this at present so there must be a God). Plus as a Math professor his argument of “perfect DNA code” is a bit disappointing. The code has had millions of years to get to where it is and also it is far from perfect (with a lot of it being “junk”).

    Not a full cuckoo … I think I will try and listen to more of his stuff and see if there is anything logically irrefutable he comes up with as support of religion.
    My preliminary suspicion is that he is not very religious but his main contention is that there is a rational stance other than atheism that is tenable and he is out to prove that.
    He mentions the head of the Genome Project as a fellow theist – well I would point you to Bill Maher’s Religulous where Bill sort of makes mince meat of the very guy.

  8. this is total nonsense no affence but if there is no god how do you think you got here obviously through birth but how did your parents get there so think about that would like to know more about your belief system

  9. My ancestors evolved from apes, which evolved from smaller mammals and so on. We don’t know exactly how the first life emerged from pre-organic matter, but that’s no reason to immediately say a god did it. There are several plausible mechanisms that could have produced the first living cells.

    Atheism is not a belief system. It’s a rejection of the various claims that one or more gods exist, and therefore a lack of belief. Regardless, if you want to know more about it, read around the site some more.

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