Where does morality come from?

Moses - St John's, Wall, Lichfield, Staffordshire.

I was a Christian for most of my life but these days I am an atheist. I wrote about that journey on this blog a few months ago. Following the “militant secularism” accusation by Baroness Warsi recently a friend asked me to consider how to arrive at an idea of what is moral or immoral without deriving morality from God. He went on to mention it on his blog and also mentioned a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? which has caused some controversy recently. In Phill’s own words:

The problem with that – with respect to the governance of this (or any) country, is that I think theism in general and Christianity in particular provides the only sound, rational foundation for any kind of ethical system. […]

Let me try and explain: in atheism, you don’t have many options for morality. I’ve heard a few different explanations, including reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day when he explains that morality comes from the cultural ‘Zeitgeist‘ (his word) – in other words, what people think is right and wrong at the time. But the general principle is that there is nothing objectively right and wrong – in other words, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are simply labels which we have almost arbitrarily come to define in a certain way. That definition may well change in the future.

Now this isn’t a new question and it has been addressed by people far better informed on the topic than I am, so consider this an exploration of my own thoughts and not a precise statement of what I believe.

There is no doubt in my mind that my idea of morality does come from nurture not nature; it is a product of my life to date. Like many other things, it is something that was influenced by my parents and by the way that they brought me up, and by the people around me, and by what I saw on the TV. (Although we didn’t always have a TV when I was young.) It was influenced by what I got away with doing and what I was punished for. Of course the way that everyone around me behaved was in turn shaped by the same things in their lives, in a chain as far back as humanity goes. The way that everyone around me behaved and viewed my behaviour is also influenced by their religious beliefs.  My parents are Christians and so that shaped their decisions and it shaped what they told me was acceptable. Since in turn my parents where brought up by Christians it is clear that societal values and religious values are intertwined and impossible to separate, or even to judge the total influence of each.

But there are factors apart from that, internal factors. If I behaved in a way that upset others then I would no doubt observe the effect that had on them. When a very young child hits their sibling or takes away the toy that they want it normally leads to upset and crying, and experience of having been in the reverse of the situation should lead to empathy and understanding. That doesn’t guarantee changing behaviour to avoid upsetting other people.

A possible explanation of ethics and morals is that they give an evolutionary advantage. In an article in New Scientist in 2007 Evolution: Survival of the selfless [New Scientist] the authors present the idea that group selection – a theory previously rejected by the mainstream – could be responsible for altruism both within and between groups. The article sums it up as:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

– New Scientist 03 November 2007, David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson

So we could conclude that morals come from this evolutionary advantage, either instinct or something that emerges from society or both. We could also be moral because we can empathise with others, and therefore treat them the way in which we would like to be treated. There is also the way that our actions are perceived by others. As much as some people might want to beat up someone who insulted them, or to murder someone and take all their possessions, that is not behaviour that others will accept. We lock up people who murder and steal because the rest of us can see the impact of those things on everyone else. We fear being murdered, so we collectively abhor murderers. Some people would still commit murder if they thought that they could get away with it, but most people would not, perhaps because they have absorbed the idea of treating people as they want to be treated at a deeper level.

Going back to Phill’s argument quoted earlier, I think the idea that you can’t be moral without God relies first entirely on the idea that there is a God at all. If you don’t believe in God but you do believe that humans follow a moral code of whatever kind, then you must conclude that you can be moral without God. The existence of morals isn’t an argument for the existence of God either, since in the opinion of an atheist, the values taught by religion or written in the bible are simply a product of society at the time that those values were set, and as such these values are simply a more rigid expression of the values that are passed down through society anyway.

I understand the revulsion at the idea that there is nothing objectively right or wrong, but revulsion at something does not mean that is not the way things are. It is very clear that values and morals do change radically over time and between societies. The desire for God to provide an absolute moral base does not call God into existence except in the minds of those who wish it.

In the end it is the actions of people which will shed light on this argument. Yes, there are people who don’t follow the morals that most people do, but it is important to note that they as often from a religious background as not. There are some people who might think that killing babies under a year old is acceptable, but the vast majority of people are utterly revolted by the idea, whatever their religious beliefs. (And I think that the paper which presented this idea is an academic exploration of the ethics of abortion rather than a call to murder babies.) Most of the atheists that I am in contact with also like to be nice to others and dislike people who are nasty. To these people, to suggest that they cannot have morals, or that their morals only come from someone else’s religious beliefs somehow, is quite insulting. There are many millions of atheists, some formerly religious and some not, who do not go around stealing and raping and murdering just because there is no God.