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: 77

Replies to This Discussion

How do the monkeys in the example confirm "innate" morality? It appears all primates 'learn by experience. Understanding another's feelings is not possible without some experiential basis. The focus here is on "standards" of performance. If the monkeys were not shocked, would they be concerned for the well being of the last monkey. I doubt it.
Assume the same experiment with humans, say in 'the terrible twos'--about the level of chimps.
Hey again, Bud,

I think that, with humans, morality is innate as a byproduct of empathy, which is surely innate. I don't know about monkeys but I do know that, with humans, a baby tugs at our heartstrings despite frequent crying, crapping, puking and need for care. Throw on top of that, having another mouth to feed, and you could make an argument for infanticide.

But even our prehistoric ancestors didn't kill or abandon their newborns. Babies are a common example of how we're genetically programmed for altruism. We will come to the aid of any baby in need. If you agree that altruism is a genetic trait, then empathy should be even easier to accept -- since it appears to play a large part in altruism.

I would stop shy of asserting that morality is a genetic trait but I do assert that it is a natural consequence of experience and empathy . . . which ARE inherent traits.
Begging the question? A little shift in the discussion? Now, morality is innate as a byproduct of empathy? Experience can't be innate. We are now to depart from the assertion that "morality" is innate, i.e. "wired in" DNA at conception. Instead, now "empathy" is innate?
I don't believe a baby tugs at heart strings. Mine didn't. Lots of mothers abandon babies, which would seem to preclude that assertion.
Besides, the monkey illustration involved experiential performance after basic learning. A two-year old is capable of decisions, and communication, beyond initial responses to physical impingements.
Think about the cultural reasons for taking care of babies (to depart from the basic question). More progeny are available for "work," or to maintain the continuum of the species, or the society.
As for "confirmations," the Pope asserts God, and adheres (maybe) to the Apostle's Creed (the only criterion for a Christian). "Belief is not necessarily fact."
If you believe morality is innate ... as you wish ... you should be able to explain the departures by others not of your belief. We need to be reasonable, and believe your way, don't we?
We're a long way here from disproving divinity of an anthropomorphic entity commonly accepted.
Come on, Bud,

No shift at all. Go back to the beginning, or anywhere in between. It's ALWAYS been my assertion that the capacity for empathy and experience are innate and that this combination makes morality innate (i.e. morality is a natural consequence of experience and empathy). OF COURSE experience is not innate. But the capacity (i.e. long-term memory) for it IS.

Some things -- like experience taking time -- or -- morality needing to mature -- are too obvious to spend a lot of effort on explaining. Nobody in their right mind is going to claim that we're born loaded with experience or morality. Let's not allow our arguments to be derailed unnecessarily.

Because there are many readers here, I'm going to quote my prior references to establish that I've been defending against misunderstandings (misrepresentations such as yours) and not differences of opinions (which are fine with me). As for insisting on converting everybody to my way of thinking . . . this is a discussion of OPINIONS -- a debate -- making arguments in support of our opinions is what we're SUPPOSED to do. Hopefully, we'll do that in an honest way and not let our egos get in the way.

Anyway, here's my quotes framing the experience/empathy/morality assertions:

From the original post:
"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."

In this quote, I show no problem conceding points to somebody else:
"But perhaps you're right: I suppose one could feel that way without knowing the first thing about religion."

Here, I agreed with your comment that: "Attacking the bearer of alternative thoughts does nothing to advance a case for an acceptable conclusion. This snit is not helpful." Ironically, you seem to ignore your own advice.
"We need to understand that philosophical discussion is often a matter of refining our meaning in response to misunderstanding."

And here, experience is clearly NOT presented as a pre-existing condition.
"We all (except, perhaps, the autistic) learn from experience and identify with others through empathy."

In the same post I say:
"It's the innate characteristics of experience and empathy that, in turn, makes morality innate." Once again, morality is presented as a consequence of experience and empathy.

Once again, I remain consistent:
"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."

Still consistent . . .
"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."

Yikes! An inconsistency!
"I believe that, just as our humanity is the foundation of our culture and society, it is also the foundation of our innate morality." As I've asserted everywhere else, morality is indirectly innate because it stems from experience and empathy. So, okay, you got me there. But that was a single case out of many and any reasonable person would grant that I misspoke. These things DO happen from time to time. Give me a break . . . PLEASE!?!

Well, that brings me up to date. I did have one slip. It was an error and not intentional.
@Bud,

I quote you: "We need to be reasonable, and believe your way, don't we?"

I'm the owner of this topic. I put my opinion out there. I've been defending and clarifying my opinion as necessary: without criticizing other opinions. I'm not changing that now.

I always (with one, late, erroneous exception) made sure to describe morality as a product or consequence of empathy and experience. THAT is the way I see it and that is what I stand behind.

I could care less if you change your mind. What's important to me is that this debate helps clarify our thinking on the subject of atheism and morality. There is plenty of scientific support for empathy as a genetic trait. From the beginning, I've asserted that a natural, human, byproduct of empathy and experience is morality. You've asserted otherwise. That's good. A mutual admiration society is the last thing we want from debate. I'm satisfied that this thread has gone as far as it should. New ideas would certainly be welcome but I think that those who have followed this debate -- no matter what their opinion -- are better prepared to deal with the self-righteous religious folks who smugly assert their moral superiority.
My mentor is/was Socrates, thus: "Question everything!" Nothing personal ... or maybe everything is.
May your choices lead you to a deserved destination, and escape from pain and fear.
Ciao!
Hi Steve,

Yes, there really has been many experiments that confirm empathy and altruism in other species. I should think there's little real scientific objection to the idea of empathy as a genetic trait of various species.

And if you have empathy, you've got the most essential part of morality.
> As far a morality goes here is the curve ball. Psychotics have perfectly functioning mirror neurons but they are able to utilize their ability to read other people to manipulate them to their own means.

Did you mean psychotics or psychopaths? If its the latter, then I believe the answer to that mystery is that psychopaths don't have the physiological reward system built into them that the rest of us have, its either seratonin or dopamine, I can't remember which off-hand. So when we do "good" things, we get a hit which reinforces that behaviour. When we do "bad" things, we get an anti-hit which makes us feel bad and negatively reinforces that behaviour. In psychopaths, those systems aren't functioning properly, so they neither feel better about themselves when they do good things nor guilty when they do bad things. In some sense, the psychopath who does good things is the most moral of us all, because they aren't being bribed or punished for their choices.
Hi David,

I think you're responding to Adriana Heguy. Beginning with a salutation would help make threads easier to follow.

Anyhow, I've ruled out the autistic in a previous reply. Likewise, any person with a neurological condition that inhibits morality would not fall under the purview of my premise. They are interesting cases to consider, however.
Hey Steve,

Have you heard the hypotheses that various religious visionaries actually suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE)? Most prominently, Muhammad, but also Moses and St. Paul, and Joan of Arc.

Researchers, looking into the curious connection between TLE and hyper-religiosity, believe they've found the "God Module" -- a part (or parts) of the brain that gets stimulated by TLE seizures and produces transcendent experiences.

It's a pretty interesting idea. Spirituality as a neurological feature of the brain.
I assume you're talking about Julian Jaynes's book. Absolutely freaky. I don't know if I buy his idea, but I totally enjoyed the book. I love Dawkins's quote about it: "It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets" (The God Delusion). The idea that our two brain hemispheres conduct an ongoing conversation with each other kind of makes sense--our inner monolog is talking to somebody in there, after all--and split-brain patients seem to support the idea, but it really is out there to suggest that humans were basically automata only a few thousand years ago.
I think I read recently that we were only capable of speech rather recently in human evolution, it seems to be one of those defining characteristics of what being a human is.

I know that in evolution terms our voice box is relatively unique among mammals, and a lot of its uniqueness is due to the fact that we walk upright. It allows our breathing and digestion tubes to have a different style of overlap, which basically allows us to speak.

I could see how something like that idea could be possible, simply because of how recent in evolutionary terms speech is (language being our primary method of communication), the brain as an organ might still be playing catch up, dealing with this new circumstance. It is a nice idea, not sure if it has much evidence behind it.

I wonder what the connectivity is like in other mammals in particular other ape species, or if it is even possible to test it in a meaningful way.

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