Posted by ChooseDoubt, Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Thanks for your response. Before I get on and answer that I'd just like to clean up a few points, as raised by G-Man in my comments section and one or two of my own.
First of all the title of this Blogalogue may be a little misleading. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in a god and as such morality may be as variable between atheists as it is between various religious sects. With that in mind, when I mention specific moral examples I speak only for myself and I do not represent other atheists, although many may agree with me.
G-man raises the question of what we mean by morality and it's a good point. We could go for a dictionary definition which boils down to concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong, but then we would be forced to define good and evil and right and wrong and that itself would boil down to that which is moral and that which is not. It is circular reasoning and not especially useful. That's why I'm going to go into some detail in this post on the flexibility of those considerations dependent upon circumstance and how that proves that absolutes, as prescribed by religions, are in fact destined to fail with regards to the flexibility of human experience.
Anyway, let's move on.
Your first criticism of my argument in which I stated that you do not follow the morality of the Bible is that you desire to and so your failure is unintentional. This immediately highlights one obvious truth – religious faith, and even your extensive religious education, does not ensure that you follow the faith based moral code. So your key argument that one cannot be moral without a god can in fact be expanded by your own evidence to no better than one cannot be moral with or without a god. Indeed, it is a main precept of Christianity that you are irrevocably a sinner and thus immoral for your entire life. Religious belief has not made you moral by the standard which you declare uniquely viable and that very same standard declares in all certainty that you can never be moral.
Secondly, you state that you cannot be bound to the example Old Testament edicts of God that I mentioned, specifically Leviticus 20:10 and 15:19-24, through an argument of exegesis that I as an atheist would struggle to understand. This is an empty argument and the common resort of a theologian who has no adequate response to the question – effectively the "you just don't get it" argument. Leviticus 15:19-24 may indeed apply only to the Ancient Hebrews, although I am not aware that it is so, but Leviticus 20:10 is also specified in the Ten Commandments and so it is inescapable that it remains in effect. As Jesus mentioned in Matthew 5:17-20
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus, whilst he may later have said "he without sin etc" was very clear above in specifying that he is making no change to Old Testament law. Thus your morality, if it is by the book, must include, as a minimum, the support for the murder of adulterers, amongst others, since any other response, even if it is in accordance with the law of the land, remains in violation of god's commands which you state yourself is defined as a time when the faithful should follow primarily the law of god and not that of the land. By a similar standard the law of god allows the keeping of slaves. The law of the land is not in agreement and thus the law of god must trump it. So I remain convinced that your failure to follow all biblical requirements for a moral life is not simply a matter of failure but a matter of choice. Your morality remains pure preference and all that you can claim to do is prefer some, but not all, of the biblical requirements.
Before moving on to my morality, let's get this pie business out of the way. The two points I wished to make with the pie thought experiment were that there are criteria for making value judgements and the subsequent assessment of their validity and that those criteria do not require a god, as was your assertion. The criteria can be established based on learning from experience and causality. I now argue that not only does this hold true for our entire approach to morality but it is also what held true for the evolutionary development of behaviour that we now call moral – call it the Blind Moral-maker if you wish. I'm going to come back to that in a little while when I explore evolutionary origins of morality.
Continuing with the pie thought experiment you contest that if you then had option to taste the pies and you preferred one and that the previously stated second man preferred the other then that this constitutes a problem for morality. It does not and that will be covered in evolutionary morality, but for now let me just simply agree with you – yes, it all comes down to personal preference. Where you go wrong is in assuming each preference for an individual to be independent of all others preferences. You fail to take into account the group dynamic of multiple personal preferences, which renders your fear of personal preference null.
You accuse me of having to borrow Christian morality to create my own moral standards. This is frankly absurd. If I happen to agree that grass is green have I borrowed that definition from Jesus (Mark 6:39)? This is clearly not true and can be demonstrated further by your indication that you would have approved of killing Abhishek and Savdeep under Ancient Hebrew law. I, if god appeared to me personally and demanded that I do it, would still flatly refuse. If I happen to agree then I agree. If I do not agree then I do not. No argument from authority, regardless of the authority, will change my mind. Your commanded morality appears extremely weak and vacuous by comparison and so perhaps the reason why you cannot understand that anybody else may have personal morality without the need for a religious crutch is because you lack it. Your own morality is thus rendered as nothing greater than mindless obedience, elicited only by the promise of personal punishment or personal reward. This is even more base than the evolutionary basis for morality which does permit the individual to commit truly selfless acts.
But even if we restrict your borrowing charge simply to morality then I can only presume that Jesus likewise borrowed the Golden Rule from The Mahabharata, Confucius, Hilel, Buddha, Zarathustra, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, not to mention in more limited form (only applied to "the children of thy people" – the Golden Race Rule) from Leviticus 19:34. And surely, if you are to claim that my own moral vacuity requires this borrowing of your religions "original" morality then how can one account for those that espoused morals displayed without such influence, and even in contradiction of such influence? As Christopher Hitchens puts it:
"Is it to be believed that the Jews got as far as Sinai under the impression that murder, theft, and perjury were more or less all right? And, in the story of the good man from Samaria, is it claimed that the man went out of his way to help a fellow creature because of a divine instruction? He was clearly, since he preceded Jesus, not motivated by Christian teaching. And if he was a pious Jew, as seems probable, he would have had religious warrant and authority NOT to do what he did, if the poor sufferer was a non-Jew."
I think it is clear that religion is certainly not the fountain from which all morality gushes. It does seem to be the fountain from which morality that involves the punishment of victimless "crimes" has poured forth. My morality, although still undefined, appears far superior at this point.
So let's define my morality. I don't have any. I judge purely according to circumstance and admit freely that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong within it, just as I would point out that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong embedded as a moral code in the natural laws of this universe. The universe, of which we are part, is effectively indifferent to us and our suffering or happiness. We can choose to consider happiness and suffering as important though, and I will now point out how such consideration has its origin in our evolutionary past and most certainly not in any scripture.
The natural world is literally full of what are commonly known as symbiotic relationships. What is actually occurring in these relationships is a situation where two species benefit from asymmetric needs. The flower, in need of pollination, has a deal with the bee in need of nectar. The Honeyguide is capable of finding beehives but incapable of breaking into them. It uses a method of enticing flight, a behaviour only used for this purpose, to guide the Ratel to the hive. Conversely, the Ratel can break the hives but is far from adept at finding them. Relationships of asymmetric needs are incredibly abundant in the natural world and absolutely all of them can be explained easily in terms of natural selection. This establishes at least one route, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, to cooperative behaviour.
But there are more routes. Humans can defer reciprocal back scratching to a later date by use of an IOU. Vampire bats have been shown to do the same by exhibiting significant memory in the postponed trading of regurgitated blood between individuals. An individual that does not pay its debts soon finds it is no longer provided hand outs. This is observable long term moral behaviour in creatures with brains no bigger than a Lady Bug. There are many other examples, ranging from interspecies cooperation between different species of fish to relationships between whole groups of wide ranges of species to alert for common predators. It's far from uncommon in the natural world to cooperate.
Beyond that we also have what would appear to be pure altruism. Arabian babblers regularly give food to each other whilst refusing its return. In fact, they also compete for the extremely dangerous position of being the one bird that sits on a high branch keeping watch for hawks and alerting the others. It appears that both altruistic behaviours are in fact shows of dominance, effectively saying "Look how superior I am, I can afford to give you food or take the higher risk of watching for hawks". The increased cost of giving and risk taking is offset by the increased breeding advantages.
Even more impressive is that once we understand that the unit of selection is not the individual but the gene then even the most seemingly selfless of behaviours makes evolutionary sense, and we can now be sure that the unit of selection is the gene and not the individual. An individual will live only one life time. The individual genes that contribute to an individual may persist for thousands or even millions of future generations. Once we understand this it becomes clear that natural selection works not on the individual but on the frequency of genes within the entire gene pool. Natural selection will therefore favour genes that elicit behaviour that benefits the survival of the gene above behaviour that simply benefits the survival of the individual. In communities of individuals, and this is very true of our earlier origins, the chances that most of the individuals around an individual shared many of its genes were extremely high. It is perfectly in accordance with Blind Moral-making therefore that behaviours would be favoured that promoted the survival of other individuals in your group and thus their shared genes. This is exactly what we see in small community species, such as we originally were.
Altruism, deferred trades, dominance displays and in-group loyalties are all very well explained by evolution and many examples of our own moral behaviours are available in the rest of the natural world. There is absolutely no need to bring intelligence or a god into morality to explain its origins. To consider that religion is a prerequisite for moral behaviour could only lead us to conclude that there must be a god of the fish, of the bees, of the ants, of the birds, of the badgers, the Chimpanzees and countless other species. It must lead us to presume that each group must have it's own commandments, it's own Jesus and it's own culture through which these divine moral teachings is passed between generations.
With our own species, and I am not limiting this only to our own species, then our intelligence and our culture also certainly comes into play. We are able to predict, albeit with some uncertainty, the future and we are able to exploit such thinking in the application of our natural moral imperatives. I, as do some other species, have specific sections of the brain that mirror empathically (not by any telepathic means, purely by observation) the actions and subsequent emotions of others. This makes me a better co-operator and is in fact the basis of the Golden Rule which is observed in practice in other species. We are naturally aware of happiness and suffering.
My ability to relate to suffering and happiness in others and my own preferences, which are largely shared by the rest of my species, for happiness above suffering provide an ideal biological explanation of morality. Additionally, this shared ability within my species enables us to generally agree on matters of moral preference, until that is we start to moralise about victimless crimes – the fault of religious morality and almost invariably traceable to an individuals desire for dominance or control. The fact that we share moral hardware and software means that personal preference is all that is needed. The preferences of the group tending to correct for any anomalous individual variation and that is natural selection at work. Anomalies, parasitical morality, have a strong tendency to be selected against or to be selected in favour against morality that has no defence against parasitical variants. Species that live in groups survive in groups because they have sufficient evolved morality to survive in groups and that is entirely down to natural selection of individual genes.
Anyway, I am sure that most will be of the opinion that I have written too much and so I will draw to a close. But I hope I have provided sufficient argument against your assertion that morality can only comes from religion and G-man's assertion in comments that if I really do claim morality to be a purely personal preference, which I do on the individual scale, that I have some how argued for an immoral explanation of atheist morality.
Lastly, I hope the above provides you with the natural account of the faculty we use to make moral decisions because it certainly offers a reasonable explanation of why, even before your faith took over your morality, you were not out raping, murdering, and stealing as the vast majority of atheists are not.