copyright © 2008 Dennis Paul Himes

In Good We Trust

An Atheist Perspective on the Sources of Morality

This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Britain (Connecticut) on the 13th of April 2008.

The text for today's talk is from Euthyphro, by Plato. In it, he quotes Socrates as saying, "The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods." Socrates said this in the course of a conversation with Euthyphro, whom he met while the latter was on his way to pursue a legal case against his own father. Socrates wondered how Euthyphro knew that such an action was moral, and the two fell into a conversation about the source of morality. Euthyphro was of the opinion that morality was that behavior which is desired by the gods, and that it is proper for people to do that which the gods desire. Socrates, in that annoyingly helpful way of his, pointed out that Euthyphro's argument is circular, because it's a claim that the gods want us to be moral because it pleases them, and that being moral pleases the gods because they wants us to be that way. The conversation later veered off to a discussion of whether pleasing the gods was even possible, given their far superior status to humans, and Euthyphro eventually had to hurry off to court. Unfortunately, in spite of Socrates' identification of its flaws, Euthyphro's error still continues to be made, twenty-four centuries later, in one form or another.

One variation of Euthyphro's error, which I have come across numerous times as a result of my open and active Atheism, takes the form of argument for the existence of God. Actually, it's really an argument for pretending to believe in God even if you don't, which a surprising number of these arguments are. It is the claim is that the absolute moral systems of religions are necessary for the survival of truth, justice, and civilization, while the relative moral systems favored by Atheists will inevitably lead to the destructions of these noble qualities. I find these arguments to be somewhat exasperating, for two reasons. The first reason is that actual experience has shown the opposite. A randomly chosen Atheist is less likely to be a criminal than a randomly chosen Theist. The second is that the contrast portrayed is the exact opposite of the real state of affairs. In reality, religious moral systems are intrinsically relative, built on foundations of sand, and eternally subject to abuse. A moral system can be built on absolute principles, and many are, but in order for that to happen religion must be abandoned as anything more than window dressing to, at most, reinforce the principles which arise elsewhere.

All major religions teach that morals ultimately, and often directly, derive from the will of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, says, "Sin is an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law. It is an offense against God.". The problem with this is that right and wrong become arbitrary; there's no sanity check used to evaluate moral commands. The circularity recognized by Socrates prevents any firm grounding in fundamental principles. This becomes especially clear when a religion's moral codes are based on sacred scripture. Many slave owners in the early United States justified slavery by pointing out that it is accepted in the Bible. It's true that abolitionists condemned slavery by pointing out that it is contrary to other Bible teachings, but that conflict is part of my point. As long as the will of God is taken as authoritative, and that will is assumed to be consistent, there is no way to resolve the inconsistent commands which are actually in scripture. Furthermore, many religions portray God as an insecure megalomaniac who considers it a sin for believers simply not to worship him. Some go so far as to consider it a sin not to believe in God, although it's never clear if those who don't are supposed to lie and pretend they do, or if that would be the sin because of the lie and nonbelievers are literally damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Fortunately, in my experience very few believers actually do base their moral system on the commands of God. Rather, they base their moral system on absolute principles like justice and equality. If asked, they may claim that those principles were somehow invented by god, but when push comes to shove they still cry, "That's not fair!" and not "That's not justified by scripture!".

If you are a believer yourself, there's a good test for determining the true source of your morals. The test is this. If you were reading your favorite holy book and came across a passage which said, "And God commanded, 'Thou shalt kick babies'", would your reaction be A) "I'd better start kicking babies, because it turns out it's the moral thing to do.", B) "I will no longer worship a God who commands such a terrible thing.", or C) "This must be a forgery, and not the real holy book (or alternately a historical interpolation not to be considered the real word of God), because God would never command such a terrible thing." I suspect that most believers would choose C. However, if you truly believe that morality is handed down by God A is the only possible answer, since B and C imply that you have some method independent of God's word for determining that kicking babies is a terrible thing in the first place.

Some apologists for religion will concede that moral standards are independent of religion, but will claim the fear of Hell and the promise of Heaven are necessary for anyone to actually follow those standards. Well, it's hard to speak for anyone else, but my impression from living with humans for over half a century is that we are much better than that. Atheists are obviously not motivated by post mortem reward and punishment, and, as I've pointed out, Atheists are more law abiding than believers. I know abiding the law is not necessarily the same thing as being good, and I know that correlation is not the same as causation, but the dramatic difference between the behavior of believers and nonbelievers which is predicted by the theory that Hell and Heaven are what keep us in line is simply not there. Being good because you'll be rewarded if you are and punished if you are not is a fitting morality for dogs, vicious criminals, and very young children. The rest of us are more mature than that.

Many of you at this point have probably been asking yourselves, "Well, if God isn't the source of morals, then what is? Evolution?". The short answer is "yes, of course". However, that in itself doesn't tell us much. It still needs to be explained what the evolutionary advantage of a moral sense is. I will give the standard explanation given by biologists, and then explain why I think that explanation is incomplete.

Although the evolutionary advantage of selfishness should be obvious, as it almost by definition increases the survival rate of the selfish organism, at least in the short run, evolutionary pressures in a social species such as humans is more complicated. There have, in fact, been two evolutionary motivations for altruistic moral behavior identified by biologists. The first is simple. A gene which causes altruism towards close relatives will be increasing the survival rates of its copies in those relatives. Keep in mind that it is the gene, and not the individual, which is selected for in natural selection. For species, such as humanity in its early days, where individuals tend to live near close relatives, altruistic behavior towards one's neighbors is, from the gene's point of view, self-serving. This explains why sacrifice for and loyalty to one's family is held in especially high esteem; even though the altruistic behavior gets instinctively applied to all fellow members of the species, it's stronger for one's kin, especially kin which has a high likelihood of sharing genes. As British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane once said, "I wouldn't give my life for my brother, but I would for two brothers or eight cousins."

The second reason for moral behavior, I think, gets closer to what we normally think of as an absolute moral system. This is reciprocity. The struggle for survival among members of a species is not a zero-sum game, especially when the interactions of a pair or small number of individuals is concerned. If I give you some of my food when I have a surplus and you do the same for me when you do, then over the long run we both end up with more food, even if I have to eat a smaller meal on the day I give some to you. This is in addition to the advantage we gain in avoiding the waste of fighting over unshared food. All that's required for this to become a successful strategy is the ability to recognize individuals, so one can stop cooperating with cheaters. This advantage pertains not only to finding food, but to caring for the injured, participating in a common defense against predators, or other threats, as well as resolving what disputes do arise in a non-violent manner. The underlying strategy behind reciprocity is what is commonly known as "the Golden Rule". The most popular formulation of the Golden Rule is probably, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.", attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. However, the rule is much older than that, showing up in pretty much every human culture soon after the development of writing. The earliest version I've been able to find is, "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.", from the Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, written over four thousand years ago. Its universality across human cultures, however, clearly points to a much more ancient origin, almost certainly stretching back before the advent of homo sapiens.

A principle fundamental to human nature, universal across all cultures, and extending backwards to the dawn of human time would probably qualify as absolute in most people's consideration, but I believe there's more to it than that. After all, much the same can be said for patriarchy or religion, and they have been weakening in recent centuries in ways that the Golden Rule has not. The fact is that humans have an extraordinary capacity to transcend their genetically programmed tendencies. This is an emergent property of our ability to reason. Our capability for abstract thought and deductive reasoning has clear evolutionary advantages, but its side effects have been so expansive that it has in some ways enabled us to transcend genetically determined behavior. It enables us to not only reason how to achieve our goals in sometimes counter-intuitive fashion, but, more radically and perhaps uniquely among species, to reason what those goals should be. Many nonhuman animals have shown the ability to do the former, but it is rare if not unknown for them to do the latter. Humans, in other words, do not only ask "how", but also "why". And that is the key question in determining moral issues, "why". Not just "why do I do certain things to achieve my goals", but also "why should one or another outcome be my goal in the first place?" We don't have to choose between the conflicting evolutionarily reinforced strategies of selfishness and reciprocity based solely on what happens to trigger the stronger instinct that day.

What then, does our reason tell us our goals should be? On initial consideration, that question does not seem to have an answer. Selfishness and reciprocity seem to be equally reasonable goals, incompatible with each other, but each able to form the basis for a consistent moral system. However, on closer examination, that is no longer true. Selfishness requires putting oneself in a privileged position among humans. That is only reasonable if there is some objective criterion by which one can rank oneself above others. And if that were so, then selfishness would be uniquely reasonable for one person among all humans. Any other human following the same moral system would do everything to that one person's benefit. If everyone followed that moral system then that one person would be made King of the World. Of course, it doesn't happen that way. Those that do adopt moral systems elevating one person above all others almost always choose themselves as that one person. These moral systems are in reality a wide variety of different moral systems, one for each beneficiary.

Reciprocity, on the other hand, has no such problem. Assuming that everyone has equal intrinsic worth is perfectly consistent. It is a moral system independent of a personal point of view, and therefore leads to no conflict when another point of view is considered. And it is that type of conflict which is the root of the irrationality of selfish behavior, much more than its inefficiency. Our ability for abstract reasoning enables us to abstract the principles of correct behavior away from our personal experience and consider them as principles to be potentially applied to any human, to see them, in other words, in absolute and not relative terms.

The practical application of absolute principles, of course, is often a lot messier than the statement of those principles implies. Specific situations often involve resolving conflicts between different principles derived from the Golden Rule. The principle of honesty, and the principle of protecting the innocent, for instance, may come into conflict when you have the opportunity to lie to an oppressor. This is known as situational ethics, which has been criticized as eroding moral standards by providing an excuse for altering your behavior in ways not allowed if one followed the rules laid down by scripture, or some similar arbitrary set of guidelines. This is an unsupportable objection, however, as all ethics are situational. In the extreme case, no one would say that it is always either moral or immoral to answer a question with the word, "yes". It depends on the question, in other words, the situation. For an example which better illustrates the kind of decision usually involved in these discussions, most people, even if they claim absolute adherence to the commandment, "Thou shalt not lie", would agree that it is more moral to do so if the Gestapo were to ask, "Do you know where the Jews are hiding?". The fact is, the resolution of conflicts between moral principles is a complicated and sometimes unclear problem, but one which is independent of the source of those principles, as messy for those whose principles are based on the whims of a father figure in the sky as they are for those whose principles are absolute.

Most parents, including those who profess a religion, understand the differences between these different moral systems at least implicitly when raising their children. Children start off with an entirely selfish moral system, are then taught correct behavior through reward and punishment by a powerful authority figure, and are lastly encouraged to act morally through an understanding of the absolute applicability of reciprocity, through such techniques as asking the child, "How would you feel if someone were to do that to you?" The middle method mimics the relative moral systems taught by religions. The final method teaches the absolute moral systems which exist independent of religion. That question, "How would you feel if someone were to do that to you?", asks the child to empathize with his or her fellow human beings and formulate abstract behavioral principles as part of an absolute moral system based on our old friend, the Golden Rule. Abandoning religious style morality is what we expect our children to do when they mature. It is also what I expect our species to do more and more as it matures.

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