Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Letter to an Atheist – PART II: Can We be Good without God?

My last piece on this subject proved two things: firstly, that there is very little room for intellectual flexibility in a debate involving the existence of God, and secondly, that science will never sufficiently rule out the possibility of God’s existence unless one is willing to place one’s trust in science that it possesses the future capacity to explain all things. Though the debate was often convoluted and verbose, there was general agreement on the above observations.

I now wish to veer away from the realms of science and explore the notion of morality and its relationship to God’s existence.

Human beings have since the acquiring of sufficient intelligence to comprehend existence and become conscious of some notion of ‘self’, subjected most behaviour to the peculiar test of morality. Morality serves as a reference point to regulate behaviour and ensure some form of conformity to a presumed standard. Its accepted origin, no matter what the Greeks say, is firmly rooted in some form of archaic religion and a simple internet search would dispel any doubt of this fact. Most established religions would teach God is good, this is what He says, so this is our moral standard.

Secular teachings however attempt to divorce the concept of God from morality and instead offer an interesting alternative. The terms Good and Evil are replaced with Right and Wrong, and morality becomes the principle under which certain actions are adjudged as either right or wrong. Actions which are right deserve applause and appreciation while those which are wrong deserve punishment or at the very least, some cold-shoulder treatment. However, the question arises as to what constitutes the substance of morality which in turn labels an action either right or wrong?

To make things simple, let us take a clear example of a so-called morally wrong act: stealing. It is wrong to steal. Why is it wrong to steal? Is it because one should respect the property rights of others? This is however not a satisfactory answer, because the question arises as to ‘why one should respect the property rights of others’. The answer to that question doesn’t seem as obvious. So then is stealing wrong because our conscience tells us not to steal? This answer doesn’t hold much water either, since most of us do not have a conscience. Well, suppose we do, still each person’s conscience would have varied degrees of what he or she thinks would be acceptable conduct. Stealing someone’s car is definitely wrong, but stealing some flowers from an overhanging branch of your neighbour’s tree? Well, that isn’t really stealing, is it? Perhaps it’s because he wouldn’t miss it. So why is stealing really wrong? One possible answer is that it is ‘considered’ wrong by the average reasonable person or by a majority opinion. However, the average reasonable person doesn’t really exist. If he does, he certainly wouldn’t be average. Majority opinion on the other hand is another figment of some statistician’s imagination, since we can only ascertain what the majority might say though we cannot ascertain what they really think. Ask yourself ‘is it really wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving infant?’ Also, the average-majority conclusion puts us in a precarious position since this would lead us to further conclude that the content of morality and the ingredients of right and wrong are subject to gradual change. So in two millennia or so, stealing may be rechristened ‘permanent secretive borrowing’. No, that simply wouldn’t do. It seems therefore, that one is left with very few theoretical options as to a satisfactory answer to the question ‘why is stealing wrong’. However, one may answer this question by reference to a certain rational chain of thought. The logical sequence that follows is that stealing is wrong because it is contrary to accepted moral standards. These moral standards are accepted because they are derived from tradition and conscience. However, what is derived from tradition becomes rooted directly in some notional experience as to what really works in terms of sustaining society, while what is derived from conscience is directly attributable to the education system, one’s upbringing and, like it or not, a fair share of social conditioning. So, are these elements, often considered as infallible moral indicators, really that reliable?

The underlined conclusion on the question of morality is one which points to something utterly basic and quite simple: survival. In my opinion, the secular version of morality can only be explained by reference to an assimilation of behavioural patterns which through a process of trial and error has turned out to be most conducive for the successful survival of the species. Therefore, every action becomes either right or wrong simply by reference to whether it is directly or indirectly compatible with survival.

If one is in agreement with my hypothesis, the question remains, does one human being have the right to enforce moral standards on another? Do all human beings have an inescapable obligation to propagate the species, and does that obligation justify adherence to some moral code of conduct? Unless, we derive our moral standards from a higher power to which all human beings are subject to, the idea that equals can enforce a standard which is arbitrary and essentially self-serving seems unjustifiable. Therefore, morality must necessarily be derived from some external source for it to be sufficiently compelling. It must precede human thought and existence in order to demand adherence. If not, one is forced to concede that the fabric of our civilization is merely based on a well-refined and cleverly disguised version of law of the jungle.

Thank you for reading.


Style said...

Dear ADD,

Firstly, I would wish to state that, while personally believing in the concept of an omnipresent, God given morality, I do not believe that such a belief is at loggerheads with a secular explanation, as explained by you above, for the existence of such.

If we accept the secular explanation for morality as being derived from ‘an assimilation of behavioural patterns which through a process of trial and error has turned out to be most conducive for the successful survival of the species’, it stands to reason that the said explanation for its existence, is also the explanation for its main purpose, in that, it exists because such a code is conducive to our successful survival.

If, on the other hand, we accept the fact that morality is derived from some external source, such a belief does not take away from the fact that the purpose of morality, regardless of the explanation for its existence, remains the same. i.e. it is conducive to our successful survival.

Therefore, the possibility exists that an ‘evolutionary theory’ explanation can be applied to merge the secular explanation for the existence of morality and the theological explanation for such.

Therefore, it is possible that morality is derived from a divine code, and that the function of such is for the purpose of our successful survival, and that the said purpose is one and the same with a secularist viewpoint for the existence of such, and that the secularist has come to his explanation for the existence of morality by starting at the top, i.e. the purpose of morality, and worked there way down, sans belief in God, to the conclusion that such a code was derived from a trial and error process.

What cannot be argues about is with regard to the purpose/function of morality. Regardless of the explanations for its existence, it must be agreed that it actually is conducive to our survival.

The arbitrary quality of morality, stems, in my opinion, from a misinterpretation of the basics of morality.

For instance, if God did give us morality, it is unlikely that it came with provisos, addendums, and foot notes. What we do have are our basics. i.e do not steal.

How we qualify it to our everyday needs, are what results in the accusation of morality being arbitrary.

If we believe in the secular explanation, the fact that we grapple with this code in order to justify our actions, for example a man stealing a loaf of bread and justifying it by saying that it was to feed his starving child, is, in a way, morality serving its function. In an imperfect world, the fact that at the vary least we take morality and try to skirt its boundaries at the worst of times, means that it is conducive to our survival. The opposite, i.e. a world without morality, might have that man who stole the loaf of bread, murdering its owner, running away in his car, and raping his wife in to the bargain, doing all those acts, just because he can, and because there is nothing the check him.

If we believe the divinity based explanation for morality, the fact the we were handed the basics such as do not steal, and that we try to interpret it according to the situations we are placed in, allows room for a overseeing divinity to judge us, by way of weighing the pros and cons, which, in a circular kind of way, is also another explanation for the existence of God.

Bob, the 2nd coming of said...

All humans do not have the inescapable predisposition to propagate the species. A majority of them do.

Societal evolution has produced a system which allows for the functioning of societies to impose upon its members a morality which is best suited for the continued functioning and thriving of each grouping of people. Those groups lacking such a system, fail. This is why it is difficult today to identify groups that freely practice completely subjective standards of morality, with the ethical base, and justice as it were, of each individual being polar opposite or largely removed from that of his neighbour or neighbours. Where such disparity lies arises conflict, which would either destroy the individual, the disputant individuals or the community as a whole depending on the degree and scope of the disparity itself and the number of those who find themselves in conflict. Such societies are those not best suited for survival and therefore those which today have largely cannibalized themselves out of existence. This is why in a majority of societies today we find people who find it necessary to conform to a set of morals - such a drive is instinctive and necessary for survival.

Therefore a majority of human beings living as part of a society need to subscribe to similar moral values for the continued survival of that society which results concurrently in the continued survival of each subscribing individual. Similar moral bases allows for mutual survival which is both individually and societally desirable. The tool utilized in imposing such morality may either have been theistic or secular. It's purpose in both instances is mutually assured survival. Those reneging from this find themselves with a poorer chance of survival and propagation.

The higher power you speak of that justifies or compels compliance is therefore not necessarily external. This power stems from the innate drive for survival. In a relatively advanced societal species this drive has resulted in a need to conform to morality. This stand better explains the changing morals we see both over time and situation.

It is not, as you say, a barbaric law of the jungle, but is part of the unceasing wonder of the law of nature.

niran said...

But isn't that the point Bob? You admit that not all humans do share this predisposition to propagate and yet society compels all to act in such a way that is consistent with the irrational(or shall I say non rational) impulse of the majority! Sounds like the law of the jungle...

niran said...

...actually, it's not the code of the majority that prevails most of the time does it...I think "majority" may be substituted with "most powerful"

Archangel said...

Thank you both Style and Bob for those wonderful comments.

Style, while I agree that the secular explanation and the divine source of morality do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, my point was that the lack of an external higher source raises serious questions on whether every free individual should be compelled to adhere to a moral code.

If morality's function is survival, and this is not dictated to us by a higher power, then there is no basis for the collective to impose the objective of survival on the individual. Who decides that every individual must (as opposed to should) work towards the survival of the species? Without God in the picture, morality should only be of persuasive force.

Bob, your point is well taken. However, if what you say is true, then all human beings should be driven towards morally right conduct since the "innate drive for survival...result(s) in a need to conform to morality." But what one can observe amongst human beings in particular is the exact opposite. The tendency of the individual is to engage in morally wrong acts which are completely contrary to the survival of the collective. This raises an important question. Are human beings the only species that deliberately engage in acts which are destructive? If so, how does the collective will for survival reconcile with the individual's will for self-benefit? Obviously, there is something wrong somewhere. And my guess is that what is natural for some is not natural for others. This is precisely why I argue that objective morality is a system which the collective arbitrarily decides upon based on what is best suited for the survival of the collective. It is hardly the natural inclination of the individual. Which brings us back to my initial point. Should an individual be compelled to adhere to the standards of his equals, merely on the grounds that it benefits the larger group? Who decided that equation?

Thank you for reading.

Is a Bell said...

That was a really interesting article...

So then r morals just made up thru sum1's imagination????
i don't like the sound of that...
Rn't morals within us 2 begin with? We just know wut's right and wrong...! No1 really needs to teach us that. Wut abt natural feelings like luv & care?! These things r not taught! So i don't quite agree that morals r imposed on us.

But i do agree that morals must come from sumwhere...and it probably comes from God or sumthing.

Bob, in short reply said...

ok i couldnt be bothered reaing your complete reply which i will do some later day.. but for now my reply is that not all but the majority do feel the compulsion. Those not subsrcibing are seen as reneging... and if not complimented by other survival skills and capacities would be ill-suited for continued survival and success in life. They either become ostracized/hermits/outcasts or destroyed so to speak.

Niran, you have not understood my point. it is not society alone that compels, but the form of society that has survived that does compel. It is societies that function in a manner that either by secular, theistic or other reasoning impose morality either overtly or covertly on its members that have survived and are best suited for continued survival. It is members of those societies who carry a compulsion to conform to those morals that are better suited for survival as well.

Those morals may be extended either by the majority or the most powerful. It's merely the compulsion to conform to survive regardless of the source of that morality that matters.

bob said...

just to add...the innate drive is present in those better suited ... those less suited lack this drive. Social mutations so to speak destined to be evolutionary failures.

niran said...

I think I have understood your point after all Bob, a society that has survived is just a manifestation of the form of society that is suited to survival is it not? The point I'm making is that the compulsion exerted on those who feel not compulsion to propagate the species to act in such a way that supports this animal instinct of those who feel compelled to survive seems like the law of the jungle.

BEAJ said...

Yes, morality is what we call refined rules that help self survival and survival of the species. No higher power is needed.
See this post.

Archangel said...


If one is to remove God from morality we are left with two considerations.

Firstly, we must consider the fact that instinct dictates certain actions for both the individual and as well as the collective. The latter overpowers the former and demands conformity to standards which best suit the survival of the collective. The immediate question that arises is this: on what basis is the individual obliged to follow the rules dictated to him by the collective? Is it because he is obliged to ensure the survival of the collective? This is a tautology and is completely unsatisfactory as an explanation.

Secondly, one is forced to consider this point: if the human species has figured out that being morally right is the most conducive method to achieving continued survival, then why has “moral wrong” perpetuated to such an extent without at any point hindering the survival of the species? To present a crude illustration of this point, a single act of genocide may prevent a single instance of over-population thereby increasing the chances of survival of those who remain. Cannibalism for the sake of survival is another such example. And there the argument falls apart. Unless of course we are to conclude that morally right and wrong acts balance out against each other to ensure greater survival.

This is where it can get confusing, so read carefully. The fact that both morally right as well as wrong acts may positively impact on the overall survival of the species is a curious observation. This is because the inter-relationship between morally conflicting acts is completely beyond the control of both the individual as well as the collective. It is in fact persuasive evidence that there is an external design which causes human beings to act in morally contrasting ways, which has the cumulative result of ensuring survival.

To say that only morally right acts lead to survival is as naive as saying "if everyone was good, then everyone would be happy."

Thank you for reading.

BEAJ said...

I never said that only morally right things lead to survival of the species.
Lions kill cubs of another lion and this puts the lioness into heat again.
This sound morally wrong, but it has more benefits versus negatives when it comes to survival of the species.
There are many other examples in nature and to do with humans as well.

What is the basis for chimp altruism and morality? I don't know if you read my post, so just answer this question.

BEAJ said...

Archangel, we are talking about you at God is For Suckers.
Check it out.

Archangel said...

Beaj, stop contradicting yourself.

"I never said that only morally right things lead to survival of the species."

Wait a said -

"Yes, morality is what we call refined rules that help self survival and survival of the species."

What exactly did you mean by "morality" there? If you meant BOTH morally right and wrong acts...then morality doesn't really feature in survival at all.

Which is exactly my point. Morality has no real say in survival since the combination of BOTH morally right as well as wrong acts are required for the greater survival of the species. These are merely acts consistent with survival. A moral tag can only be placed in retrospect.

So this begs the question...where do we really get our morality from? And why should we adhere to moral standards in the first place?

To answer your question...the basis for Chimp altruism and so called morality is probably survival. But there may be Chimp acts which can be described as "morally wrong" that in fact are equally consistent with survival. So the value of a certain act being labeled as "moral" in relation to its consistency with survival is completely redundant. It seems to me that there is no nexus between morality and survival.

Thank you for reading.

Archangel said...


Thank you for reading.

Anonymous said...

"I never said that only morally right things lead to survival of the species."

Wait a said -

"Yes, morality is what we call refined rules that help self survival and survival of the species."

try rereading the word only, and come back tomorrow and try again.

PiGuy said...

I am curious, archangel: precisely how do you know which things god has deemed moral and which are not? I'll guess that you're using the Bible and believe it to be the word of god. As I suspect that that's a fairly safe assumption, I'll forge ahead...

I have a copy of the KJV on the bookshelf downstairs. I've read it completely through once and used it as a reference many, many times. Does yours come marked up with notes and Post-It flags like a used college text so that it's obvious which parts espouse good behavior? Mine did not and nor, I suspect, did yours.

So it says that stealing is bad enough to warrant eternal damnation (isn't that the penalty for breaking one of the Big Ten?). Well, okay. That seems a little extreme if we're talking about a 10 year old who takes a classmates pencil but I agree that it's wrong. However, it also says that a woman who dresses as a man has committed a crime that is punishable by death. Whoa - death for wearing pants? That's pretty over-the-top, don't you agree? Women with showy jewelry: death. Teenage son talks back to dad in public: death. Thinking "I'd sure like to have my neighbor's wife": death.

I've got to believe that, despite the fact that it says so in the Bible - god's word - you don't think that all of those punishments fit the crimes if, in fact, some of them are even immoral at all. Why don't we (well, most modern, reasonable people, at any rate), in this day and age, think it immoral for a man and a woman to engage in intercourse while the woman is menstruating? Because we've come to realize how dumb an idea that really is, despite that fact that god said so.

While the Bible - god's word - does identify some acts that even today we think of as immoral it also tags many things that aren't as being wrong as well. If it isn't clear at this point, I'll spell it out for you. It is PEOPLE who decide what is moral and what is not. WE cherry pick and quote mine and pretend that that's what god intended - because it's what we'd like for god to have intended - unless, of course, it isn't. In which case we simply choose to pretend that god didn't say it.

It might help if you think of it like this: god didn't create man in his own image. Man made god in his own image. The Bible says that he said what we would've said if we were god, if we were in charge of deciding right and wrong. And, in fact, we are. We always have been and what is moral and immoral has, dare I say, evolved over time.

Unfortunately, some of us apparently have such low self-esteem that we project that shortcoming onto others and assume that none of us are capable of arriving at those judgments on our own. If YOU can't figure it out, you're free to believe whatever it takes for you to be moral - there's no shortage of good people, that's for sure. And thank you for trying to be a moral person. But don't assume that the rest of us are likewise incapable of being moral without god and don't tell us that something is wrong because you believe that god said so. You need to have real reasons and your post doesn't identify a single one.

BEAJ said...

No contradictions on my part:

"Yes, morality is what we call refined rules that help self survival and survival of the species."
For example, going around killing people or stealing from people for no or little reason, will lead to contempt by others, and most likely will end in death to the killer/stealer, which may lead to the undernourishment of any children he is providing for, or premature death to that person before he even spreads his seed. However, the key word is "help" because one can steal and murder and get away with it for quite some time or even throughout a persons natural life...though it lessens his odds. Sometimes a person may break rules (the law), which could be deemed culturally immoral in order to survive. Like lying to protect someone, or stealing to feed a family that might starve.

"I never said that only morally right things lead to survival of the species."
Again, morality is a very subjective term, so is right and wrong. But there is no conflict in this sentence and the above sentence.

Anonymous said...


Your post makes many illogical presumptions throughout that one would have to accept without arguement in order to accept the post as a whole. The first comes early on when you state that the only people that believe that gods existence will be disproven by science are those that believe science will one day have an explanation for everything.

This is a logical fallacy. Science may actually disprove god quite easily one day. 200 years ago, people believed illness (particularly mental illness) was caused by demons. I rather doubt anyone alive during that era believed science would disprove this notion, and certainly not within a century (yes, I know some people still believe in demon possession over the common biological explanations, but at the risk of being dismissive, those people's family trees tend to have convergent branches--no offense to the inbreeders out there).

Simply put, you can't presume that disproving god will be that difficult for science in the forseeable future simply because we haven't found a way to do so yet.

I don't blog, that's why I am anonymous.


Archangel said...

PigGuy, not once have I referred to the Bible in my post. The existence of an external source for morality is not necessarily a reference to a Christian God. Perhaps you should leave aside your preconceived notions and read my post again. My point is simple. If morality doesn't serve a purpose for survival (please read my comment on this issue), then it raises serious questions on why we seek to adhere to such a system. Chuck your Bible aside and join the debate, mate.

Beaj, I'm glad you highlighted the most important words of your two contradicting statements.

Still, you claim that killing and stealing decreases an individual's chances of survival... "it lessens his odds." But my point is that there is no need to attach any moral significance to any such acts since acts such as cannibalism and genocide under certain circumstances may in fact enhance chances of survival.

There is no need to be morally right to ensure survival. It seems that all natural human acts are in someway or the other, directly or indirectly, in isolation or cumulatively, consistent with survival.

So I ask again...what's the point of being good?

To steal a car may indirectly be contrary to the objective of survival. But to steal a loaf of bread...well now I'm not so sure. So WHY is it that we place a blanket rule against stealing, when obviously it is a subjective issue based on circumstances?

"[M]orality is a very subjective term, so is right and wrong."

I agree completely. So why the heck do we have objective norms?

Fritzy, sorry to cut you short, but go read the 200 odd comments on my previous post...that should keep you busy for a while.

Thank you for reading.

BEAJ said...

There is no need to be morally right to ensure survival.....what's the point of being good?

There is a need to be morally right overall. Yes, there are some circumstances where it is advantageous to steal and even murder, however, when it comes to social animals like man, if those acts were prevalent or even random, we would be extinct right now.

If you are asking what is the point of not going extinct as a species?.........well, that is another question. Might as well ask, what is the point of anything.

So why the heck do we have objective norms?
Can you rattle off some objective norms?

Archangel said...

I'm afraid to you not believe that there is an objective norm against paedophilia or child molestation?

And no one may argue against the fact that human beings believe murder, rape, robbery etc are objectively morally wrong acts. Speak for yourself if you don't believe this.

"when it comes to social animals like man, if those acts were prevalent or even random, we would be extinct right now."

I would like to extend your argument and state this: if not for those acts taking place in given situations, we still might have been extinct right now. Which takes us back to one of my previous arguments. The correlation between these so called morally right and wrong acts to produce the cumulative effect of enhancing the chances of survival are quite extraordinary. Simply put for the simple minded...human beings would not be better off just because we did only good stuff.

Thank you for reading.

manbag said...

“A prayer in a public school! God has no place within these walls, just like facts have no place within organised religion”.
(Superintendent Chalmers in The Simpsons)
Check out :
How about a conversions campaign here in SL to secularism / Budhism ?

PhillyChief said...

Two things are very troubling:
1) Numerous absolutes that are merely assumed
2) Once assumptions are in place, the insistence for either an initial god spark for morality or an "external design" at work.
I think everything at it's basest level can be reduced to personal gain.

First you get an idea, like the "Golden Rule". It starts as "Don't F! with me, and I won't F! with you". Simple and effective. Over time it's effectiveness for personal gain is accepted as "right" by the collective. Without this first step, you have no collective. More follow. Soon you have a list, a code. To the question, "on what basis is the individual obliged to follow the rules dictated to him by the collective?" once again, personal gain. Go against the code and fear reprisal. Also, their can be some level of prestige if recognized as a great adherent to the code of the collective which is, of course, personal gain. To the notion of being "obliged to ensure the survival of the collective" I'd say insofar as an individual sees his survival tied to the survival of the collective, then yes, he will be obliged to ensure the survival of the collective, making that a satisfactory explanation, not an unsatisfactory one.

To the issue of morally wrong behavior, why does anyone behave morally wrong? The basest reason is they feel they can get away with it (once again, personal gain). The next reason, the Les Miserables example mentioned, is personal gain. Weighed between the threat of reprisal and the death of self or family, it's an easy choice. This then brings up the issue of rationalization which has been ignored. You can rationalize what's considered morally wrong. Kill another? Wrong. Self defense? Right. Kill in self defense? Right. Steal? Wrong. Steal to survive? Right for you, wrong for who you stole from. Now we've arrived at how things can be right and wrong, depending on what side you're on. Finally, there's the concept of "the greater good" which leads to "the ends justify the means". It's wrong to kill, but this man stands in the way of a great plan that will do a great good for the collective, so I'll kill him. Afterwards, the collective benefits. I fail to see what's so curious about the idea that both right and wrong acts positively impact the collective and I've shown that the inter-relationship between morally conflicting acts is completely WITHIN the control of the individual. It then becomes a small step to show it's also in the control of the collective. The collective can order the wrong act to be committed (kill this man, attack another collective and take it's goods, it's lands, it's people, etc). To come full circle, why would one obey the collective and do wrong? Personal gain, such as glory or once again, fear of reprisal if he doesn't.

At no point do I see a god to exist in order for a code of law or morality to happen. It can happen just fine without him. I also fail to see the issue of morally right and wrong acts advancing the collective as being evidence of a god at work. What I do see is the potential for using the idea of a god to advance the code or morals as the ultimate fear of reprisal for failure to obey. Don't do this, god will get you.

Anonymous said...

Quite simply: humans have evolved to be social animals. Individuals do what they can to survive. Most humans work within the framework of society to varying degrees to help guarantee their survival. Some take advantage of others, while some work with their neighbors to improve the lot of their tribe.
Social constructs exist in nature with other animals. This shows that before humans evolved to the point of being able to imagine gods to explain the mysteries of the world around them, it's likely that most basic moral obligations had already developed. The main difference is that we have a greater capacity to examine our societies than other animals, and wonder how those "rules" came to be.

Mauro said...

OK, wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's not that it's not right to steal -- Nietzche, for instance, will tell you that it's OK for HIM to steal from YOU, just not the other way around. As someone tells Socrates early in the Republic, justice is the advantage of the strong.

It's wrong for me to steal from you because you want to keep your stuff. That's clear enough. Now, is it categorically wrong? The most popular part of the Bible says yes (I honestly can't tell you if Leviticus, or at least the Talmud, doesn't make some exception), but I say maybe. Kant would say yes, because if everyone started stealing, society would fall apart. I agree with that.

But why would stealing be WRONG? I personally like the Good/Evil alignment axis, with Good as positive altruism and Evil as negative altruism. If I stole from you, I clearly would value the item I stole over your well-being: you lose a lot from my having stolen your item, from the item itself to your trust of me to the security of all of your items. That would make me Evil if I did it because I want you to suffer, and Neutral (to say the least) if I just don't care. Now, you would be rather upset if I stole your items, and you would come over to my place and steal my items, possibly inflicting violence on me as well. I would kill you. Your next of kin would kill me and my family. And so on. Society falls apart.

This is why stealing is wrong. It's not an evolved reaction -- it's basic respect. Regardless of whether I have a moral compass, I'm compelled to respect your property because if I don't, the Big Daddy in the Sky will smite me, where by the Big Daddy in the Sky I mean the cops and by smite me I mean throw me in jail. Because we have this wonderful system where these armed guys can use force to deter me from stealing from you.

You might say that that's the law, not morals. I say, in that case, that the difference is immaterial, and that insofar as morals are not the law, morals aren't actually that important, with the exception of "respect others". So anything else you do, well, it doesn't really matter to me. Have sex with a dude (if you're a dude yourself). Tie him up and beat him if he says it's OK. Make him eat your excrement if he's fine with it. Burn the flag of any country you want, smoke pot, cheat on your wife with her consent. None of that bothers me at all, as long as what you do with other people doesn't bother those people, either. Having sex with your neighbor's wife is only really wrong if your neighbor doesn't approve (in which case you'd be wronging him) or your neighbor's wife doesn't approve (in which case you'd be raping her). If you get drunk, it's fine with me, as long as you don't pose a threat to my safety by driving or harassing passerby. Really, that's about it.

Jesus had this right, actually, when he replaced the Law with those two principles of loving God and loving your neighbor. Obviously, the first one is irrelevant to an atheist, but the second one is a good one, since it's the guiding principle of cooperating with society. What compels you to actually do that? Well, obviously not the Christian God. That deity punishes people in hell -- in the afterlife only -- so you never get to find out whether that's not just something someone made up.

Morals come from man not desiring to be harassed by other men (no gender implied there, of course) and enforced by societies powerful enough to do so. That's it. It's a glorified Law of the Jungle, which someone was smart enough to write in a book, and then someone else was smart enough to distill the basic principles, and then everyone was stupid enough to do it for the wrong reasons for 1500 years. In reality, there is NO punishment for "immoral acts" if they aren't enforced. If there were such punishments, the Republican Party wouldn't have lasted Nixon, much less Reagan and the younger Bush, and our dear President would have been impeached three years ago.

Anonymous said...

1. The terms right and wrong are just as pointless as good and evil as all of them are subjective.
2. Actions that over time are deemed as being beneficial are declared "right/good" and those detrimental are declared "wrong/evil."
3. Both beneficial and detrimental actions are determined by each individual society.
4. No two completely separate societies have the same understanding of these parameters. (i.e. Amazonian aborigines compared to Australian aborigines)
5. The only planet wide detrimental activity (in all societies) is killing.
6. Killing lowers the overall population and therefore decreases the entire tribes survival rate. Therefore it is taboo.
7. Stealing is not taboo in all societies because some cultures do not believe in ownership.
8. Your entire argument is based on western philosophy and perhaps you should expand your reading to include other societies and their ideas before you make generalizations about people you've never even heard of let alone understand.

Archangel said...

PhillyChief, I find the idea you posited about God's role in morality quite intriguing. And I myself have often thought of this.

"What I do see is the potential for using the idea of a god to advance the code or morals as the ultimate fear of reprisal for failure to obey. Don't do this, god will get you."

This is a valid argument. The idea of God may merely be an evolutionary response to form certain incentives for morally righteous behaviour. Once I am able to get around the question of what reference point early humans had to start believing in a God that is inherently good, I am prepared to consider this line of reasoning quite seriously.

Mauro, thanks for that comment.

"This is why stealing is wrong. It's not an evolved reaction -- it's basic respect. Regardless of whether I have a moral compass, I'm compelled to respect your property because if I don't, the Big Daddy in the Sky will smite me, where by the Big Daddy in the Sky I mean the cops and by smite me I mean throw me in jail. Because we have this wonderful system where these armed guys can use force to deter me from stealing from you."

You seem to suggest here that the only thing keeping us from stealing is the deterrent of punishment. I find that hard to accept completely since our mutual respect for each other often transcends the law. And what's more, it only accounts for refraining from morally wrong acts and fails to explain the doing of morally right acts which one is neither required nor compelled to do. It also doesn't explain one of my other concerns. Why is there such a vast spectrum of conflicting moral responses amongst individuals? If being good results in overall personal gain, which translates into better chances of survival...then why isn't humanity evolving to be more good...or "better" so to speak?

Thank you for reading

Chaoswes said...

By the way the 12:27 comment was mine. I hit the wrong button and did not check before publishing. My bad.

Chaoswes said...

I just realized that I have projected my male self on your persona. If you are a women I apologize.

PiGuy said...


I merely suspect that you're referring to a Xian god. I said that up front and stand by it. However, with your objective, non-affiliated stance now declared, that raises exactly the point that would logically follow: which god's word should we choose as the standard? Are you asserting that all gods espouse identical moral frameworks? If so, you need to examine some other works of religious literature and do a little research for yourself. There is nothing even close to a consensus. Again - to which god's moral framework should we subscribe? The Muslim god? The Sufi? The Aztecs cut the beating heart from an unwilling victim every day in order to appease their god. Is this moral? By their standard it was. Not doing so, according to their doctrine, would've caused the end of days, the sun never rising again. Buddhists and Shinto actually have no godhead at all. Do you truly believe that generations of Japanese were immoral until Westerners showed up and introduced them to the concept of god?

See, there's your conundrum. If it's your contention that all people derive their morals from the word of god then you have to address the contradictions between the thousands and thousands of gods that have been postulated into existence as there is no universal set of morals across the board (not to mention the contradictions that exist within any one single paradigm). Which of all of the gods' words establish THE universal moral code?

I'm sure you know this but, since it's your blog, you're free to pretend that you've cleverly sidestepped the whole issue. You haven't. You've merely acknowledged that it's you who's not wiling to, as you say, join the debate. And, as there is clearly no debate (defined to be "a formal method of interactive and position representational argument"), I'll move on. There's no debate here. Just a preacher, his choir, and a few who bravely continue to pose meaningful arguments to which you respond with the always dissatisfying "I've already written a thousand words of incoherent babble on that matter." You don't want a debate. It might make you have to actually consider the utter preposterousness of your position.

Archangel said...

PiGuy, you and I are not on the same page of debate yet, but I think we're getting there.

"See, there's your conundrum. If it's your contention that all people derive their morals from the word of god then you have to address the contradictions between the thousands and thousands of gods that have been postulated into existence as there is no universal set of morals across the board (not to mention the contradictions that exist within any one single paradigm). Which of all of the gods' words establish THE universal moral code?"

I contended no such thing. The word of God may for all intents and purposes be man made and all the gods you have cited may be figments of our imagination.

My point is quite different and I hope you will consider the distinction.

I argue that we derive the need to be morally right from an external source since we need not be morally right always to ensure survival. In fact I argue further that morally wrong acts are necessary for survival under certain circumstances. So the purpose of morality is questionable if you really think about it.

Morality need not be dictated to us by any "word of God" but may in fact be an imprint which has very little to do with natural survival instincts. Now I am perfectly comfortable (and you should have realized this if you read my post carefully enough) with replacing the notion of an external force with the conclusion that there is no real justification for accepting the present analysis of what is generally right and wrong. This is due to the fact that what is now accepted as right and wrong is merely the imposition of collective will over individual preference. If you can concede this point, then yes, there is no debate indeed.

Thank you for reading.

BEAJ said...

Here is an excellent 6 minute video totally related to this subject.

Ungodly Cynic said...

I might disagree with the morality/survival argument. Does anyone here truly believe that we're not destroying the planet? Where's our sense of right and wrong in this regard?

Also, we enable the confinement and torture of animals in order to satiate an irrelevant industry that has lied to the public and manipulated the government. You know, the so-called "food pyramid". Human beings are not a species that requires the consumption of meat, and we are the only species on the earth that makes a choice to consume milk into adulthood.

People also turn a blind eye to animal testing all in the name of protecting the consumer. Yeah, right, more like protecting industry from lawsuits by making sure products are safe.

We all know poverty is directly tied to crime, "a simple google search" will attest to that. Where the hell is morality on this issue? We allow the spending of half a trillion dollars on a war, the end result of which can never be moral or just. Couldn't we have spent that money on a mission to end poverty? Where is the outcry? The uproar?

Simple, morality has little to do with survival of the species. Survival of the species has mostly everything to do with the ability to procreate. By which I mean providing an environment in a society whereby it is safe, conducive and comfortable to do so. As population on the planet grows, this environment will become evermore fractured as resources become more scarce; water is one we need to look out for. We can survive without oil, albeit archaically...

This comment is growing long and I see I simply need to post it in my blog.

Thanks for reading (LOL, I like that), I welcome your comments there at ungodlycynic.blogspot

Ungodly Cynic said...

Rereading some comments. "external source" keeps cropping up. Could this source possibly

Ungodly Cynic said...

I believe that the whole creation idea, especially the Christian one; is all a, and two, has driven people to believe in some odd-ball notion of morality disguised in greed. As an example let's look to some Native American cultures, whereby the concept of personal property was non-existent. Where does the right and wrong notion of thievery apply here? Huh? It doesn't. Personal property belonged to the whole of the tribe (I know, a horrendous thought to most everybody). It was a communal society more suited for sustained survival than the Anglo-Christian one. Native Americans (and other indigenous peoples like the Celts and Gauls) were more tuned to the earth; to sustainability. Yet, what happened to them. They were conquered by a power much stronger. Is this survival of the fittest? Or destruction of the whole?

Ungodly Cynic said...

archangel, I applaud divergent view points.

Where I put my foot down is prosyletization and trying to shove ones beliefs down another's throat. And persecution (either overtly or subtly) of individuals who don't "buy" it.

Granted, as of yet, I have not seen any of that on your blog. You simply express your views on the matter.

So, in order to feel you out, I propose a litmus test of sorts.

1) Do you think that religious teaching has no place in public education? Not religious studies, but teachings found in many "charter" schools and madras'.

2) Do you think it improper for politicians to invoke their deity and their faith in their deity to get elected? No, scratch that "to get elected", how about...anytime.

3) Do you think that religious organizations should lose their tax-exempt status and/or face legal fines and penalties if they either 1) accept federal tax dollars and 2) preach politics from the pulpit?

4) Do you think that an atheist or secular humanist is just as capable of holding public office as the next guy?

I wish I could think up some more but these are some of the main issues that concern me. Not some vague "outside" influence on humanity.

And, maybe this litmus test could provoke some talking points. I'd like that.

As it is plain as day, if you answered yes to all of these questions then we are well on the same page.

Ungodly Cynic said...

Also, thanks for not screening comments. I hate that.

Anonymous said...

I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing