Where Do You Get Your Morals From?
March 19, 2012 in Religion
An answer to this other supposed “argument”.
Like their “understanding” of evolution usually amounting to “IT ALL HAPPENED BY CHANCE FROM NOTHING”, some morons love to claim that nonbelievers have no basis for their morality or that “objective morals” (read: morals given by a divine lawgiver) must exist for there to be any morality whatsoever. In most uses, “Where do you get your morals from?” is not a question, it’s an accusation; the implication being that atheists can do whatever they want because they don’t have a sky daddy to be held accountable to. Like “Atheism is a Religion”, it’s also a stupid distraction, because the user almost always knows that atheists are just as, if not more, moral than the average theist. Yes, I could go on about how religion tends to create implicit immorality, but I’ll try to stay away from that this time around. Anyhow, let’s dispel this “absolute morality” & “where do you get your morality” nonsense.
A limited bullet point list of wrong thinking about morality from the immoral follows:
- Morality can only come from some supreme supernatural source that is unchanging and perfect. If it wasn’t, we’d change our morality on a whim, morality is arbitrary, etc.
- Morality is only good when it comes from our particular supreme supernatural source (Yahweh, Allah, etc.).
- Anything immoral that our god has pointed out is clearly because of some reason we can’t understand or due to “historical context”.
- Nonbelievers cannot be moral because they don’t follow our religion’s dictates on what it means to be good.
Just to be sure, let’s make sure we’re working from an understood definition of morality first. Morals are standards that we measure our actions against when it comes to our behavior. Morals help us make decisions not only between what’s good and bad, but what’s good and what’s best for the situation they’re called for. If, for a hypothetical example, you have to decide whether to kill one person to save five people or kill five people to save one person (none of whom you know), most people would choose the former to save more people. It’s a bad outcome either way, but you’ve chosen the best possible outcome given the circumstances.
With that down, we should look at where morals originate. The god-believer (theist) gives a predictable answer, and also claims the laws and edicts of said god are absolute. But are they?
- Slavery used to be okay, often backed by the bible (“Slaves, obey your masters”). Nowadays few Christians (or any other faith) would claim slavery is morally correct.
- In the Mormon religion, blacks were actively discriminated against until it simply wasn’t allowed anymore…and then they claimed a “divine revelation” that it was okay. (source, though Hitchens’ God Is Not Great covers the subject very well too)
- The penalty for apostasy in many religions is death. Some people still call for and some follow through with it.
- Even now, some churches (and such) are beginning to accept LGBTs into their ranks, while mainline proponents of religion do not. This will likely continue to change over time as well. The usual treatment for them and others would have been death.
These are definite changes from a supposed “absolute” (read: unchanging) morality, but how does old religion deal with issues like technological changes that were not at all foreseen by their holy texts that cause new moral decisions (the KJV or Quran don’t ever deal with copyright, or whether or not oil companies should receive subsidies for example) or other moral issues that have arisen since the time of their writing? This sort of “Absolute” morality will not and cannot accept not just change, but also addition and deletion.
These are just a few examples of morality that have changed from biblical edicts (feel free to find your own examples for other religions claiming “absolute morality”) and easily disprove the “god is absolute morality” nonsense – or that absolute morality is good. Once again, this video is relevant:
Now that we know that “absolute morality” is a sham and not even a good thing, how do we have a stable sense of morality? Believers love claiming if we don’t have an absolute source of morality, that we must then have morality founded on vapors that change on a whim. This is clearly a false dichotomy. First of all, moral standards can still stand, despite the success or failure of us to live up to them. We just know that we create them, and we change them, for better or worse.
As the Dawkins video above shows, morality should be reasoned and thought out. How do we then decide on what morals to adopt? To make a video game comparison, Borderlands is a hybrid of a first-person shooter and a role playing game. The ultimate mission (at least for the core of the game) is to reach and open a supposed treasure hoard known as “The Vault”. To do that, you need, as Neo says in the Matrix, “Guns. Lots of guns.” – which the game happily serves up. While you play, you can (and should) pick up guns, shields, and other items to help you progress. Of course, you don’t keep or use every item; most are deficient in some respect (not accurate enough, not powerful enough, etc.) or not applicable (e.g. they’re designed for another character entirely, not suited for your play style), and you sell or drop them in favor of more suitable (and valuable) items that meet with your values and needs. If you were to throw out your best items, your expected life span would take a sharp nosedive. So it is with morality and the values behind it; we (as a culture) should evaluate and test our morals and the values underpinning them. When we discover or create new moral ideas, we should rigorously test them to see if they hold up, rejecting them if they do not, and adopting them if they do. As with the game, tossing out our best (or even just good) ideas would cause our life spans to take a sharp nosedive. Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, argues that morality should serve humanity by maximizing human well-being. I’m amenable to this standard, even knowing this requires examination and interpretation, never mind (often hard) decisions. Sure, stopping animal and human sacrifices is a definite and easy improvement (clearly more moral), but making the choice to pull the plug on life support for a vegetative person when there’s no hope of recovery is another. “It’s bad to pre-meditatively murder someone” seems like one definite, but the case can be made for say, a despot who commits genocide, has child slavery, and so on (yes, this is the far-flung exception to the rule, but not unheard of, as when Osama bin Laden was killed).
Like many scientific (and thus human) explanations have replaced “Goddunnit” as the answer, god-free answers are replacing the mythical sky daddy response. So where would a non-believer get their morals from? I’ve often thought that Star Trek (especially TNG) was a great source, as were GI Joe, Thundercats, He-Man, etc. with their various PSAs, as the following memorable moment shows:
Sure, “have an apple instead of a candy bar” (a real GI Joe PSA) is a good message, and assorted other tidbits are valuable. While moral lessons were no doubt imparted from these sources (and more), I also learned from my parents, extended family, friends, coaches, teachers, reading, and simply being put into situations that required making choices. Those choices produced consequences, leading to revising and improving my decision making process (most of the time, anyway). Over time, patterns developed (e.g. I don’t like being hurt, and if I hurt others, I will usually get hurt in return) and my values were amended and updated. No god needed to lean over me and whisper into my ear, and I’ll bet none needed to lean over on you either if you take the time to honestly admit it.
This still leaves the question of where did they ultimately come from? My parents learned from their parents, my grandparents learned from their parents, and so on and so on. If we look at man as having to co-exist with each other to survive, the evolutionary advantage of cooperation (and thus not killing each other) becomes clear. From there, we started communicating about how we should treat each other and haven’t stopped discussing that topic since – which is a good thing. Reciprocity and empathy became underpinnings behind morality, followed by the values (e.g. honesty, fairness) that informed our morals (and these aren’t even unique to our species). If we did stop discussing and questioning in those early times, we’d probably still be slaughtering our own kind in the hope of pleasing the rain gods or what have you. Sure, we will not always make the best decisions – this is why there’s always the opposition in whatever political issue out there (no matter how wrong). There will be improvements to our collective moral outlook while we live and after we’re gone, just as there will be failures while we live and after we’re gone. It’s another part of the complicated life we live. Claiming “absolute morality” is a lazy way out, and stops the discussion. It gets us stuck in thought that’s not applicable, not beneficial, and worse.
What makes our morality stable? After all, if someone can just come along and change the standard, they could just make, say, stealing candy from the grocery okay — or could they? Here, we know that their morality didn’t jibe with the proper reciprocity standard. What about, say, a gay man who has to counteract the moral standard that says he is immoral? Here, as we know now, there is little reason other than “it offends my god”, to deprive him of rights and equal standing. Sure, two fairly simple examples, but they help demonstrate that we can make our own workable morality system, just as we make space stations, highway systems, cell phone networks without divine intervention, wonders on their own. Those that insist on crediting an unproven deity with any of the previous just show their willingness to not only ignore the power of human solidarity, but to spit on it.
Further Reading & Viewing:
- Elizabeth Anderson’s “If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” – a far superior writeup on this issue, but no Borderlands references, sadly.
- Iron Chariots’ entry on Secular Morality
- Matt Dillahunty on the superiority of secular morality – YouTube.
- QualiaSoup’s series on morality – YouTube. Neatly covers why theists love to label nonbelievers as immoral.
- Sam Harris lecture on The Moral Landscape – YouTube.
- TheoreticalBullshit’s Treatise on Morality – YouTube. Has many arguments made both here and in the Anderson article; also superior thoughts on the issue, IMO. (At this point, why are you even reading this?)
(3/21/2012 #1) If “absolute morality” is a bad thing, what about “universal morality”? Such a thing is an exceedingly tall order – we would have to account for a dizzying array of situations, circumstances, cultures (whether international or domestic), values, and moral standards. Giving a clock may be a fine thing to do in many places, but in places such as China, to do such a thing is taboo as it implies the recipient will die soon. We may have many similarities, but these don’t have to arise from a given universal standard – simple principles such as reciprocity, learning from experience, and empathy do the job. Christians may claim “The Golden Rule” (“Do unto others…”) as their special contribution to the world (a reciprocity-based moral edict), but they were beaten to the punch by such figures as Confucius who made his own variant perhaps over half a millennium before the gospel writers put their own variant in.
Is it worth trying to construct our own “universal morality” that we could all aspire to, some set of values that can help to improve the well-being of us all? Perhaps, but it won’t and shouldn’t be done by just one person (I’m a bit too lazy, after all). It also makes for a limited sample size. Again, it’s a work in (evolutionary, so to speak) progress.
(As an aside, the golden rule does have some failings; for example: I may be okay with you dating my sister, but you may not be okay with me dating yours. I may want a promotion, but if you’re competing for the same one, what then?)
(3/21/2012 #2) Another point of clarification: I am not positing a universal morality in the article. I am positing consistent underpinnings that construct morality can easily arise due to natural (human) causes. However, these underpinnings are not statically applied from culture to culture – they vary in their application. One society may initially demand a hand be cut off for theft, but develop their sense of reciprocity as time goes on and replace that punishment with incarceration or fines.
(3/21/2012 #3) I really should have more solidly included Euthyphro’s dilemma in here, since it adds quite a case against asserting god as a moral authority. To keep it tl;dr, we just ask: “Is Yahweh good because he commands things to be good, or is he good because he abides by a what’s found to be good already?” If the former, then his edicts are as arbitrary, and based on what’s found in the bible, some rather heinous acts are a-okay. If the latter, then we can safely cut the middleman.
Also, after watching Theoretical’s video (now in the further reading section), I do concede I can’t think of a single case where say, rape would be justified, and that his definitions are quite good. However, I don’t see that dramatically changing the content of this, as we still use the factors I’ve mentioned to build and maintain our morality and make moral decisions, especially where the issues are not so clear cut.
(3/24/2012) After some peer review over at ThinkAtheist and The Thinking Atheist forums, I have to say that there are some errors here that really need rectifying (which I expected, since this was my first crack at this), and that’s fine – this is why I dragged in so many external reading/viewing sources. The demolition of “getting morals from gods” is fine; it’s more a matter of better describing and accounting for how we build our own, as well as dealing with the problem of cheaters.
Eventually I’ll try to re-address the issues here, likely in a mini-series of sorts.
In case you still insist on “Absolute Biblical Morality”, here’s a great video to watch: