Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Morality and Atheism

If you have read any material from believers on the topic of morality you will no doubt be familiar with the idea that morality requires or implies the existence of a god, and the idea that we get our morals from God and/or the Bible. I disagree with both of these ideas, and in this article I will offer some reasons why.

Morality is a deep and complex subject, so consider this merely an introduction to my views and reasoning on this broad topic, at this point in time. I claim no particular expertise, and my views will likely continue to evolve over time.

Is morality objective?

Many believers insist that morality is objective, and thus must have come from God. I disagree on both counts. To address the second part first, a morality that consists of simply following another being's (subjective) preferences is not objective. The same Bible that says "Thou shalt not kill" also has God commanding people to do exactly that just 12 chapters later!

Further, it does not follow that morality is objective simply because you have various commandments written in a book (of disputed origin). Your claim that those commandments came from Yahweh is no more relevant than if you claimed they came from Zeus, or the lady down the street for that matter. All other religions make similar claims of divine inspiration, and yet their moral commands often contradict yours (while having exactly the same claim to objectivity). In all cases we can agree that the book objectively says X, but in no case can we go from there to having some compelling reason why we should follow it. This also holds even if you claim the commands came directly from God. So what? Why should we follow them?

If you answer, "so we can avoid death" (or something to that effect), well, that's not exactly a shining example of good morals (and let's not ignore the immorality of a being that would threaten us with death if we don't obey).

Perhaps you might argue that God knows what is best for us. But if the standard for morality is shifted to "what is best for us", then God is no longer required, since we can figure that out for ourselves! Or at least we could, if it were not somewhat subjective...

Meanwhile, an objective moral law would imply that morality does not change. But morality has changed quite a lot over time. Just one chapter after the giving of the ten commandments, the Bible offers instruction on the treatment of slaves. Most of us would consider slavery to be immoral nowadays (it is illegal in all countries), which both refutes the claim that we get our morality from the Bible, and the idea that biblical morality is objective.

There is much more that could be said on whether morality is (or can be) objective, but my view is that morality can be somewhat objectively derived from various axioms that almost everyone happens to accept as a starting point. These include the notion that suffering is to be avoided or minimised, health is better than sickness, survival is better than death, and so on. What we deem moral tends to align with the well-being and flourishing of entities, kind of like an expanding moral sphere beginning with the individual and extending outwards to one's family, community, species, and even to other sentient beings in many cases. This last one is certainly a more recent development - further demonstrating that morality evolves over time.

The axioms mentioned above are clearly not exhaustive and morality is obviously not quite so simple as that, but it should be relatively easy to see that even following such simple goals as maximising the well-being of all individuals/groups/species does generally point to pretty good moral outcomes. But we can do much better.

For completeness I should also mention that my view of morality outlined above is not strictly objective, since it relies on individual subjective goals and acceptance of basic axioms. However, I would argue that the morality claimed by believers is also subjective for the same reasons. While they likewise can claim an objective external standard (albeit static text written in a book), they rely on subjective reasons to follow it.

Where does morality come from then?

My understanding is that we all actually inherit our morality from various sources such as our genes, culture, and intuition. There are also some moral guidelines that we can derive from experience and reason, and we invariably pass these on to our children. The same is also true of those who wrote the Bible - which explains why the Bible does contain some morality that we still accept and some things we now consider immoral. It also explains why we sometimes disagree with other people on moral issues, and more so with people raised in different cultures or in different time periods.

Far from being a fixed set of laws handed down from above, as many believers seem to think, it is something that evolves over time as our intuitions and collective reasoning capabilities improve, and also as we learn more about ourselves and the world we interact with. For example, learning more about the ways in which humans and other animals can suffer leads to better treatment of both. We are still making progress in this area and have much room for improvement.

Morality and survival

In many instances (though certainly not in all) morality appears to be correlated with survival. That is, behaviours that we deem moral very often lead to the survival and well-being of individuals and their kin, and vice versa.

For example, it is not difficult to see why ancient societies that practised child sacrifice might not have lasted very long compared to societies that nurtured and protected their young. Those more supportive cultures likely were more successful, and as they inevitably refined and passed on their culture to successive generations, those moral norms and recommendations were passed on as well.

Likewise, our genes may also tell a similar story. Those of our ancestors with genes that made them slightly more predisposed to looking after themselves and their offspring, were more likely to see those offspring survive to someday pass on those same genes to their own offspring, which they in turn nurtured, and so on. Likewise genes that contribute to pro-social behaviours - we are stronger (and thus more likely to survive) when we can work together and forge strong relationships.

It seems plausible to me that both biological and cultural evolution have played a role in the development of our sense of morality, perhaps the latter more so than the former. The evolutionary origins of morality is an ongoing area of research, with which I am only vaguely familiar.

Moral tools

Obviously morality is much more than helping one's own kin. Another aspect to consider is what I call "moral tools", which are mental tools we all use when trying to determine how we should act towards each other.

The first of these is the golden rule. Most people in western societies are probably most familiar with Jesus's words, "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31). However, the same sentiment has been quoted in writings as far back as the 4th century BCE, and possibly much earlier, such as in the Ancient Egyptian quote: "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another". Again the same idea is found several times in Ancient Greek writings from the same period.

It is worth mentioning that there is a notable flaw in the golden rule, in that if you do to others what you want them to do to you, they might not like it. This has led to the formulation of the platinum rule, namely that you should treat others as they themselves want to be treated. So simple.

Another moral tool worth mentioning is the principle of interchangeable perspectives. This relies on our capability for empathy, and theory of mind, both of which also offer survival benefits apart from morality. Similar to the golden rule, it asks us to imagine ourselves in the place of another, or vice versa, and reason about a situation from that perspective. Likewise we should consider the feelings and perspectives of others when deciding how we should behave. The reason for this is that it will almost always lead to more pro-social outcomes, often beneficial for all parties, which aligns with the axioms and goals mentioned near the top of this article. Altruism can arise naturally from the empathy we feel when imagining the plight of another.

There is a quote along the lines of imagining the kind of society you would create if you could not in advance choose which role you would play within it. If you happen to know the quote, please let me know.

The point of highlighting these moral tools is to demonstrate that while we are all no doubt familiar with the concepts and use them daily in our own lives, they did not originate in the Bible but have been part of most human cultures for millennia. In forming larger and larger societies, our species has had to adapt and find ways to work together in ways that are mutually beneficial. It is this need to both live alongside other people and interact with them that has driven a lot of cultural evolution, to the point where we all now recognise the value in being kind to our neighbour, in order to maximise our own quality of life in the long run. That's not to say everything we do is selfishly motivated - it isn't. But we can extrapolate these principles to see how such behaviours would be reinforced throughout societies and across generations.

Game theory is another fascinating topic worth reading up on, though I won't go into detail here. See the prisoner's dilemma, as one well-known example. It seems our moral framework really does take such outcomes into consideration when deciding on the best course of action. We don't always act morally either, and it would not surprise me if there is a cost/benefit analysis going on behind the scenes - and sometimes we choose badly.

Be the change

Returning to the original theme of this article, one question believers always seem to ask is, "If you don't believe in God, why be moral?"

There are two rather concerning implications:

  1. Are people who believe in God only moral because of that belief? Are they saying their belief in God is the only thing preventing them from committing murder and theft?
  2. Is their only reason to be moral merely the possibility of reward in an afterlife?


The believer's question is easily answered, and just a moment's reflection should be enough to expose the problems with it.

First, consider the many cases in the Bible and in history where people have committed horrific acts, believing they were commanded to do so by God. Of course, some atheists have also committed terrible deeds, but the point is that we should not pretend that belief in God confers any guarantee of morality.

Secondly, if there is no god, or at least no afterlife, then the most valuable thing we have is our life now. It therefore follows that we would seek to maximise our pleasure and minimise our pain in this life, and that includes all of the moral assessments mentioned above in this article. It is abundantly obvious, is it not, that if I were to steal and murder, the consequences for my life would be disastrous, let alone the impact to my family and society (and doubly so if everyone lived that way)! But more importantly, why would I ever want to do that?

In contrast, there are few, if any, instances where living an honest, respectable life would not be in my best interests. But above all of that, remember the comment I made about a moral sphere? I care about myself, yes, but I also care about my family, community, and humanity as a whole. It makes a lot of sense to try, even in small ways, to assist in creating the kind of community that I would like to live in. Again, it is easy to recognise that this can be optimised if everyone does their part.

Sure, I may not care too much about what happens after I'm gone - but I certainly care about what happens while I'm alive, and I care about the lives of my children too!

The fact we can be moral without belief in a god should be easy to figure out. Without the belief in a parental figure to reward good deeds and dish out punishments to the wicked, it is up to us to be fully responsible not just for our own actions but for raising healthy, moral children, and building societies that function as best they can.

The challenge is great, and as you can see in the world we have a long way to go, but the sooner people stop wishing for a magical genie to clean up our mess and start working together to create a nicer world for humans to live in, the better off we will all be.