I was involved in a discussion in which the host advocated switching to the word, "ethics", and relegating the word, "morals", to religious types. He wanted to do this because he felt morality was too tied to religion. Yes, religious types would very much like to make morality their exclusive domain. But it's not and never will be as long as there are freethinkers.

I believe that human morality is a by-product of human evolution. As the human capacity for memory evolved, we gained a greater capacity to recall experience. As social animals, empathy evolved because of the advantages it lends to cooperation with others. Together, experience and empathy combine to produce morality. Because we know (from experience) what hurts us, we know what hurts others (empathy). This combination, in effect, makes the Golden Rule a part of the human condition. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you because you need each other to survive.

I say that, to the extent morality is tied to religion, religion is winning the argument. As an atheist, I hate to see a fellow atheist concede unwarranted territory to the enemy.

My take on religion's claims to morality is this:

Creationism is heavily tied to religion.
Intelligent design is heavily tied to religion.
Intelligent falling is heavily tied to religion.
Book burning is heavily tied to religion.
Circular logic is heavily tied to religion.

Since when do we prefer the religiously dumbed-down versions of things? If I don't allow religion to subvert evolution, gravity, education or reason . . . why would I make an exception for language? Just because so many of them think that morality can only be God-given, am I supposed to say, "Okay, morality is your word from now on . . . we'll just use ethics instead."?!?

Not only is this surrendering prematurely, it's missing the opportunity to deflate the religious notion of moral superiority. Religious morality is based on scripture and God-given rules; it's based on authority. Natural, human, morality, on the other hand, is based on empathy and experience (I know what hurts me, so I know what hurts you); the Golden Rule. I ask you: which morality promotes enlightenment?

As we all know, Abrahamic religions, through their scriptures, promote slavery, subjugation of women and some pretty horrendous battlefield atrocities. It can be fairly asserted that the Abrahamic religions have been THE most persistently divisive influence in the history of mankind. Such are the moral products of religion.

Now, look at the reforms in religion. We no longer support slavery, the subjugation of women and battlefield atrocities. That's because our natural, human, morality has overruled religious morality. Not only is human morality more solid than religious morality, it dictates what we accept as religiously worthy. It determines what IS religious. If human morality determines what is religious, why do we need religion in the first place?

So when I hear any suggestion that we relinquish our moral advantage, I get riled up and try to convey the wrong-headedness of such a notion. The claim, that morality has too many religious connotations, is just an ancillary concern to me. The real point is that the religious folks are winning the argument when we lose sight of the REAL force and source for morality . . .

. . . OUR HUMANITY.

Tags: disbelief, ethics, freethought, morality, religion

Views: 76

Replies to This Discussion

Perhaps I misstated my case. This whole debate is based on assumptions, n'est-ce-pas? To say One is wrong also appears to be an assumption. Until some One shows proof of genetic influence on social standards, it appears to me the hypothesis has the weight of "fact"--can be confirmed as a contemporary truth. Attacking the bearer of alternative thoughts does nothing to advance a case for an acceptable conclusion. This snit is not helpful.
Hi Bud,

I agree with you. Communication is difficult enough, just getting directions to the post office. Discussing more complex topics means we need to be extra careful in our word selection. And we need to understand that philosophical discussion is often a matter of refining our meaning in response to misunderstanding.
I'm not "attacking" anyone's "alternate views" here. It's just I think words are important, especially when it comes to science, which many see as the ultimate authoritative source - including creationists and any other kind of crackpots and nutjobs, when science appears to (mistakingly or not) strenghten their arguments. It doesn't require that much effort to call a cat, a cat.

And yes, I think a rigorous choice of words, and definitions that give as little room for interpretation as possible, do a lot "to advance a case for an acceptable conclusion".
To those of you who are branching off into genetic morality and "standards" . . .

Our humanness is innate. By "humanness", I'm referring specifically to the way we all (except, perhaps, the autistic) learn from experience and identify with others through empathy. Experience and empathy are human characteristics we all understand, learn from and share. If you want to consider this a "standard" then be my guest. But I don't think anybody will seriously deny these 2 human characteristics.

It's the innate characteristics of experience and empathy that, in turn, makes morality innate. Yes, it starts off immature but (hopefully) develops as we mature. No, there is no guarantee that experience and empathy will prevail over abuse or religious indoctrination.

Perhaps the best way to present this notion is to harken back to when there was no concept of morality at all -- including religious morality. This is the reality that most of prehistoric humanity lived under. Much of their behavior would probably be based on brutal facts of life. Life was particularly red in tooth and claw.

But there was always an evolutionary pressure to cooperate and, thus, enhance the odds of survival. Group politics require a certain level of cooperation. If you're familiar with Richard Dawkins' books, then you know that cooperation even extends to altruistic behavior.

But it's difficult for cooperation to flourish in primitive conditions. As mankind shifted from tribal societies to city-state societies, cooperation became more important and commonplace. Along with this increase in cooperation, the larger scope of city life meant more socialization and a higher premium on social skills. Empathy naturally plays into these social conditions. The evolutionary pressure for cooperation lends empathy survival value.

There is no single gene for empathy. That's not how genetics works. But empathy is nonetheless a human trait shared by all of us. My assertion is that the human capacities for experience and empathy are evolutionary byproducts of the cooperation required for ever-larger social groupings. They are innately human. Morality stems from these innately human traits. We quickly learn, for survival's sake, that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

This does not mean that innate morality will prevail. There are other factors involved: abuses, cruelties or religious indoctrination can override our natural ability to empathize with others.
Again, "innate" refers to something that is not learned, but "instinctual." Empathy is learned, not a feature of babies at birth. "Morality" (subject under discussion) is defined as a set of standards. We're not discussing semantics, but a set of characteristics of "humaness" (for want of better word--perhaps of animalness?). There does not appear to be an "evolutionary pressure to cooperate," in most other animals--and we are animals--as they do not exhibit such.
"Experience" is certainly learned--acquisition of data in a specific time frame. You can't have "experience" prior to existence.
Apply reductive thinking. The origin of morality has to do with interactive experience of humans.
Hey Bud,

On what basis do you cite empathy as learned? I assume you mean it's ONLY acquired through learning. I've presented the case that evolution makes empathy inherent but it matures with experience. I certainly find the notion that empathy is ONLY a learned trait to be dubious at best.

I consider experience to boil down to long-term memory and recall. This capacity must have increased along with increases in brain size. As for empathy (the other essential component of morality), I just Googled "evolution and empathy". Of the 1,230,000 English pages returned I chose the first free document, titled "Putting the Altruism
Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy
"

I appears I'm not the originator of this idea! :-)

LoL . . . seriously, here's the first paragraph of the .PDF document (written by Frans B.M. deWaal)

******************
Evolutionary theory postulates that altruistic behavior evolved for the return-benefits it bears the performer. For return-benefits to play a motivational role, however, they need to be experienced by the organism. Motivational analyses should restrict themselves, therefore, to the altruistic impulse and its knowable consequences. Empathy is an ideal candidate mechanism to underlie so-called directed altruism, i.e., altruism in response to another’s pain, need, or distress. Evidence is accumulating that this mechanism is phylogenetically ancient, probably as old as mammals and birds. Perception of the emotional state of another automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer. With increasing cognition, state-matching evolved into more complex forms, including concern for the other and perspective-taking. Empathy-induced altruism derives its strength from the emotional stake it offers the self in the other’s welfare. The dynamics of the empathy mechanism agree with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.
************************

It appears I'm not alone in my assertion and do have support from the scientific community . . . not that this means I'm "right" or that there aren't counter viewpoints.

So, if you grant the possibility of the innate human capacities for experience and empathy AND that morality naturally forms from their combination, then you end up with, for all intents and purposes, an innate form of morality. This is not to say that innate morality will prevail over other forms. Only that it's a natural part of the human condition.
Wolves hunt in a pack because it is more efficient--as do humans--a learned system. Social structures are stable (?) experientially as resolution of conflict. All balance is a reflection of conflict, energy in opposition, whether we discuss cultural or cosmic states.
All scientific solutions are subject to revision. Consider Einstien. Hoyle?
The more you know, the more you realize there is more to know.
Books, like EKGs, are the instant production of changing status.
We can't know the minds of other animals ... or even our own.
Be careful to not go beyond the horizon, for you may fall off the edge.
@Adriana,

Years ago, I had never heard of Michael Shermer. Then I saw him interviewed on T.V. He was promoting his book, "How We Believe". I went out and bought it the next day. I've been a big fan ever since.

But since then, I've moved to the Philippines. His books (as well as most freethought books) are hard to come by here. There's not a lot of interest in them: this is a very religious (Catholic) country.

Although I have found some of their books here, I've tried ordering others by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc., . . . but not a single one has ever been delivered. This is one of the pitfalls of life here in the Philippines.

"Moral Minds" sound particularly interesting. I'll keep my eyes open for it.
Huh, and I thought sinus snakes were a problem where you live. But if you can't even get the books you order, well, the snakes are just a minor nuisance.
Hi Steve,

I equate "high degree of socialization" to "experience". A young child may know she's doing something wrong when she lies but she might not know why it's wrong. It takes experience to learn that compromising her word or crying wolf renders her untrustworthy. The consequences stemming from loss of trust is a valuable learning experience (best learned while young). With that experience under her belt, she will better understand how it feels to lie, be caught, and suffer the consequences. She might learn to lie as little as possible or she might learn how to hide her lies better. Either way, she'll refine her morality (right or wrong) as she matures.

We all go through this learning process. Along the way, we learn that the human condition is shared by everybody. Our hopes and joys, pains and sorrows, are very similar to the experiences of others. We can put ourselves in others' shoes and imagine how they must feel.

The human condition . . . our humanity . . . is the foundation of culture and society. When the founding fathers of the United States claimed that "all men are created equal", they obviously weren't speaking of physical prowess or mental abilities: they were speaking of the one characteristic that dwarfs such superficial traits . . . our humanity. We were all born equally human and, therefor, equally worthy of all life has to offer.

I believe that, just as our humanity is the foundation of our culture and society, it is also the foundation of our innate morality. We are taught many lessons, right and wrong, as we mature. We might be taught corrupt or poisoned moralities through abuse or religious indoctrination. But in the end, we are responsible for our own actions and must decide, on an ongoing basis, what is the right thing to do.

It is tragic when people lose their way. Our first encounter with independence (i.e. moving out of parents' home) can be a dangerous transition. Young people are often (usually?) not yet mature enough. It can be a trial by fire in which futures are won or lost. Most people don't stray too far and find their way back safe and sound. Others aren't so fortunate.

Atheists reject religious morality. I hear, too often, this means they have no morality. I believe we always have our humanity -- experience and empathy -- to fall back on. This doesn't mean morality becomes easy with atheism but it does mean we have a simple rule to guide us through most situations: DO NO HARM. Tough choices still need to be made at times and we WILL choose wrong once in a while. Nobody claimed it's easy.
Rather, "Do the least harm," according to our individual perceptions and interpretations.
"Be kind to each other" also fits the bill in my opinion.

Almost everyone, including bastards, will give a stranger who's asking for directions one minute of their time, so they don't lose one hour of theirs. That's a kind of reciprocal altruism (you expect people to return the favor if the situation were reversed) we don't often think about, yet it's deeply ingrained in each of us.

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