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.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

11 thoughts on “Where does morality come from?”

  1. It does appear that some people can’t manage moral and ethical behaviour without the apparent intervention of God. It seems plausible to me that Gods and religions are social constructs created by those who value moral and ethical behaviour that originates from empathy, compassion and humane concerns but who find that they need to invoke a ‘higher power’ in order to encourage others to toe the same line. Sadly Gods and religions can be and are appropriated by those who only want to do harm, instill fear and accrue power for themselves.

  2. Consider ideas like social norms and behaviour conventions as memes, i.e. replicators in their own right, just like genes. The history of genetic evolution is, if nothing else, one of genes co-operating with other genes and forming alliances first to produce prokaryote cells, then eukayryote cells from co-operative alliances of prokaryote cells, then as alliances of genes in multicellular organizations of cells, to form organisms for with organs, systems, etc.

    There are many examples of co-operative alliances between members of the same species to form herd, flocks, etc for mutual self-interest, and between different species such as insects and flowering plants and between humans and domestic animals and crops. In biology, co-operation almost always wins out over competition in the long term.

    And of course, with intelligence came memes, which enabled us to form social groups with shared values and the necessary rules and cultural norms to form successful societies. Those social groups with the best social cohesion and the best rules for ensuring co-operation and enforcing those rules by appropriate treatment of transgression, would be the most successful societies.

    Natural selection would favour the evolution of memes producing the most co-operative societies and the differential success of societies carrying them.

    These memes would have evolved differently in different societies according to local conditions but, like the genes in all regional varieties of evolving species, they would all share some basic attributes as they shared a common origin. This explains why diverse cultures, and even regions within the same overall society, can vary in detail whilst all sharing certain basic ideas like the Golden Rules.

    So, to explain the presence of morals, ethic and cultural norms in human societies we don’t need to invoke magic or supernatural entities; biological science is perfectly adequate for the job and simple evolution by natural selection produces the most parsimonious explanation of the observable facts. No magic required.

  3. Phill, it seems only so many replies can be made in-thread, so I’ve had to indirectly reply. I hope you see this.

    Morality grounded in reason, such as Kant’s approach, doesn’t equate to ‘if you can reason to it, it is moral’. There’s a schema to Kant’s thinking, which can broadly be put as an appeal to universalisation. If we can’t universalise an action, then that action is wrong – objectively so. For example, lying is wrong for Kant because it can’t be universalised; if everyone lied, society would break down. Now, that’s just one (poorly sketched-out) theory of objective morality grounded in reason. Kant’s thoughts have been critiqued and expanded, but the important point to note is that when I say ‘grounded in reason’, I’m not meaning morality is simply whatever one can rationalise.

    My analogy with science was to show that difference of opinion doesn’t entail subjectivity. Young Earth creationists believe that the Earth was created only 5000 or so years ago, and scientists disagree with them. But this disagreement doesn’t mean that there is not a matter of fact about the age of the Earth. Similarly, there is disagreement about what is and isn’t moral. Some people think abortion is immoral, some don’t. Again, just because there’s disagreement on whether or not abortion is immoral does not show that there is no matter of fact about the morality of abortion. Moral realists – and I’d class myself as such – argue that morality is a matter of fact. When somebody says, “what you are doing is wrong”, I’d argue that such a statement is either true or false; just as I’d argue that the statement “it is raining outside” is true or false. Importantly however, disagreement over whether a certain action is wrong doesn’t mean that morality is subjective; just as disagreement about whether or not it is raining doesn’t mean that rain is a subjective.

    Go back to a moral outlook that is grounded in religion. When there’s religious disagreement about what is or isn’t wrong in the eyes of God, it doesn’t entail that such a question is subjective.

    1. Hi Murray

      “If we can’t universalise an action, then that action is wrong – objectively so. For example, lying is wrong for Kant because it can’t be universalised; if everyone lied, society would break down.”

      The thing is, that in itself is a rational argument. In other words, everyone has to be on board with that in order to consider something moral or immoral. That was the point I was trying to make. Although that system would allow you to make ‘objective’ judgements, the system itself is not objective. Someone could disagree, and then you’re back to square one.

      Also, such a line of reasoning would allow you to consider certain things moral/immoral, but I think it would only be of limited use in certain situations. For example, what about the infanticide thing? I can’t see how it would give you much guidance as to whether that would be moral or immoral.

      “Importantly however, disagreement over whether a certain action is wrong doesn’t mean that morality is subjective; just as disagreement about whether or not it is raining doesn’t mean that rain is a subjective.”

      Thanks for clarifying, I see your point now. But I’m still not sure how you get to this position. Science has a specific goal, whereas morality and ethics are much more of a grey area. I don’t think you can equate the two – in morality things are generally more complicated and fuzzy than a simple yes / no or factual answer.

      Do you think, for example, that morality can change over time? If so, if morals are ‘real’ they are only real for any given time. If morality does not change over time, how do you reach that conclusion?

      So, to go back to my earlier point about an Islamic country, they have reached the conclusion through whatever means that it’s a just punishment to stone a woman to death if she is caught in adultery. Is that immoral, and why / why not?

      You seem to be making appeal to a factual, objective moral system without explaining why such a system exists given naturalism as a starting point.

  4. “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”

    If morality comes solely from nurture not nature then morality is relative to how an individual has been nurtured in their upbringing. Many individuals make up a family and many families make up a society, when they have been nurtured with the same ideals, you are arguing from their stand point that what they believe and practice is moral. This is a problem, for example, in societies where it is acceptable to hate an ethnic group solely on skin colour grounds.

    I saw an only South Asian kid in the classroom in the early 90’s tromented from the age 8 everyday by majority of the class. Teachers and parents dismissed it. Back then and from the 1950’s society had been nurtured by the majority of it’s citizens to treat South Asians this way. Today the problem extends to Islamaphobia. Individuals young and old in society are being nurtured to be averse to Muslims – this has mainly been through media propaganda.

    Not long ago the black community was being hated and attacked, as members of society were being nurtured through media propaganda with various negative qualities being attributed to the black community. Nowadays it is the opposite mostly. The media shows the black community in a more positive light, whether it is in drama, sport, music, entertainment and documentaries.

    What religion offers is a set of universal moral principals which do not die out over time and are applicable to every individual in the world. Every individual has instilled in them this recognition of good but has being given free will to reject it and perfrom evil to satisfy their personal prejudices, which every human being has, but some choose to be rational and, for example, see that there is no point attacking a polite, law abiding Muslim because of a terrorist attack which another Muslim carried out, in a Western country. Rational people see that many Muslims have been attacked by the same terrorist ideology and they themselves condemn the Musim who carries out any attack, realising it was out of their own rejection of good to satisfy their personal prejudices.

    I used the above example as it is prevalent today, a good book to read on this example is “The two faces of Islam” by Stephen Schwartz. In a earlier hard back copy, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a very positive testimonial, seen on the back cover of this book.

    Regarding a statement from Murray “is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

    My response would be that God is the source of all that is good. God is not going to do something “unpalatable” by making good evil when He feels like it, as God is all good and that act would be evil and for God’s infinite nature, that act is a logical absurdity like a statement being true and false at the same time.

    We have been created to go to heaven and experience good in it’s most immaculate forms. Evil is furthest away from God but evil exists because God has given us free will to reject good. This is the test to see who among us deserves to go to heaven, to test us if we choose to commit evil by rejecting good and/or to test our faith when subjected to evil by others directly or indirectly for e.g. poor villagers in Africa whose resources were taken by imperialists and were left with a corrupt oppressive regime.

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