Nature is, as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “red in tooth and claw”. It has no morals. Morality is a human construct that usually reflects our social norms. As such, morality is formed by an amalgam of influences from family, religion, culture, evolution and the arts. This amalgam of influences varies from person to person and is relative to our exposure to, and experience with, these influences.

Almost half the human race subscribes to a religion that claims morality is objective because it is handed down by (an Abrahamic) God. Most of the rest of us believe that morality is relative and subjective. Can morality be objective without being handed down by God? It’s commonly claimed, by the religious, that it can not – that, without God, morality has no authority.

Nature may not have any morals but it does have a prime directive that compels all living organisms: Survive. We eat, drink, breathe and procreate for survival. At all levels: genetic, individual, cultural and across species, survival dictates the terms of life. Survival is a basic, objective, fact of life: shouldn’t morality conform to it? Could there be a more objective, fundamental, basis for morality? If so, what is it?

Morality, because it is a human construct, can only be relative. There are no objective morals "in the wild" waiting to be discovered. Unlike morality based on scripture, morality based on survival enjoys a solid, objective, rationale: those things that best enhance and promote survival are better than those things that don’t. Though survival is objective, any moral value derived from it would still be relative because, in the end, we decide, as individuals, what best conforms to the prime directive. Even the utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number" creed suffers from this relativity: who decides what is the greatest good or who the beneficiaries should be?

But at least we would have an objective standard -- a source -- for morality that reasonable people can agree is elemental and objective. So, assuming we formulate morality based on survival, what would the differences and consequences be for us as a species?

Let's take North Korea and Iran, for example. Both are unstable, rogue, nations with nuclear ambitions. Wouldn't survival be best served if we stripped them of nuclear capabilities? Perhaps. But politics would blur the lines -- just as it does now. Morality is conspicuously absent from much of politics. What holds survival value for one nation might not be the same for another nation or for the planet. The prime directive is too easily forgotten.

For an example of individual morality, take human rights, for instance. Equality, protection of property, pursuit of happiness, freedom and justice: these can all be seen as necessary to best promote peace and prosperity; both of which are survival values. This morality would still be relative and subject to interpretation (emphasis and implementation).

So, the survival values and morals derived from the prime directive are subject to interpretation: objectivity is immediately lost. The prime directive is probably most useful as a starting point and as an objective test for moral validity: if there's no survival value in a proposition, it's not a moral one. In theory, it should be far better to have an objective source for morality but, in practice, I don't see a significant difference.

Anyway, that's my fledgling ideas on a moral system based on an objective source: the survival instinct. What is morally good offers survival value. These ideas developed out of a discussion with T|A member, Frink. Frink maintains (if I understand him correctly) that morality itself is objective and can be standardized into a system of objective morality. I, however, just don't see how there can be an objective set of morals "out there" . . . the best we can do is base our subjective morality on an objective standard. I've chosen survival as that standard.

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Tags: Frink, morality, morals, objective, subjective, survival

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Comment by Atheist Exile on November 28, 2009 at 8:52pm
Hi Michael,

It seems we're pretty much in agreement. If all of humanity clamored for peace with a single voice, then, maybe, they might opt for a survival-based moral system to make peace happen.

But that's never going to happen . . . is it?
Comment by Atheist Exile on November 28, 2009 at 8:49pm
Hey Tim,

Since posting this topic, I've found out that Ayn Rand's Objectivism echoes much of what I've written. It's not exactly a new idea. This happens all the time: something seems unique only to be old hat. Actually, survival-based ethics was too obvious an idea once I started thinking about a source based on nature.

Anyway, I haven't yet decided how survival rationales scale up and down. Survival values at the genetic level hold implications at both the individual and species scales. Survival values at community and provincial levels . . . I haven't thought about enough yet. Survival values at national, regional and global levels can affect us at all scales.

I'm just tossing out ideas here.

Then there's the question of whether or not objectivity is even possible across scales. I can't imagine that it is . . . at least not without compromise: and that means a willingness for our entire species to cooperate for humanity's sake. So, I don't think it will ever happen. People will continue to starve and wars will continue to upend diplomacy.

It seems to me that racial integration is a survival value at all levels. Integration dilutes the gene pool and exerts evolutionary pressure for more homogeneous societies. Although diversity has its attractions, its drawbacks outweigh them in my mind. We value the richness of various cultures but our differences seem to be a prime cause of conflicts. It seems quicker and easier to continue the trend to a "shrinking" world where people are more likely to inter-marry than to wait for humanity to evolve beyond its xenophobia.
Comment by Atheist Exile on November 28, 2009 at 8:09pm
Hey Glenn,

I've heard of both those sites. I'll check them out.
Comment by Glenn Sogge on November 27, 2009 at 12:07pm
Some other places here to explore:
Atheist Morality
Beyond Morality
Comment by Michael Schmidt on November 27, 2009 at 12:07pm
Consider that, if there is no soul, and nothing spiritual/metaphysical about the human, then we are just biological computers, and "self consciousness" arising out of that computer is an illusion. We are a system of "Catch & Toss" (can't remember the name of the person who started that philosophy), there is input through our senses, and our brains react to the input. Even without our external senses to provide _external_ input, we still have the thought processes themselves, which spawn more thought processes.

Okay... now to the point. Since we are just organisms, then no, there can not be any objective morality because any form of morality automatically presumes a "right" way and a "wrong" way. Without some external force (a god with power) to impose a code of morality, there can never be anything objective, only our rections to stimuli.

As an organism, however, our primary (perhaps only) real purpose is survival, not just of the individual, but of the species. It seems logical then to suggest that any "morality" if it needs to be codified, should be based on what is best for the survival of the species as a whole.

Now, if we all thought the same way, this would be no problem, because we'd all come to the same conclusion about what constitutes the best thing for the whole species. Sadly, our brains are flawed because each brain physically develops differently from every other brain. The synapses created based on genetics, biology and experience (culture/upbringing) lead each of us to tend to make decisions a certain way. Thus the tendancy for some to be Conservative or Liberal, Religious or non-theist, to like classical music, or hard-rock.

So, it would be possible to create an "objective" morality only if all human brains were equal, since they're not (and I can't imagine ever will be) we can never have an objective morality based on the survival of the species because the human brain is flawed.

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