A common comment that will be thrown at you when debating or discussing with a theist will be that "if you don't get your morality from god, where do you get your morality" or "are atheists then immoral" or something else of that flavor. There are many way to address these comments such as discussing where morals come from and the definition of morals, which can be tricky, or that morality is intrinsic in each being and you don't need god to have them or that morals preceded religion and there are plenty of examples that can go along with that last point. These can all be very effective but I heard something the other day that I felt made a lot of sense.

When asked "were you a moral person", the person, who was an atheist said, "you're right I'm not moral because morals is a set of behavioral guidelines derived from authority whether real or imagined and I don't use morality in my day to day life to make decisions, however I'm a very ethical person, and I think that social ethics as they evolved out of social dynamics, are a better course to pursue then morality, because if you're being a moral person, and you are doing what the authority has instructed you to do,  that authority may not in itself be moral. So for me social ethics are the way to go."

Now I understand that by ethics are defined as moral behaviors. But the distinction is blurry to me. So I would like to hear your opinion on a) the differences between the two if there are any in your view and b) your preferred method to answer this question. How do you answer someone who comes at you with the "morality" argument?

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I don't even get into that - relative morality and social conditioning and the distinction between ethics and morality. It changes in the air between my lips and their ears to 'You are right - I have no morals' Instead I say 'You do not get your morality from religion either' and then point out that the bible advocates slavery, raping children (if taken from a town in which you have just murdered all the men, boys and non-virgin women or if you later marry the girl) selling your daughter as a sex slave, killing people who work on the sabbath, disobedient children and those of other faiths etc etc Then say 'You see none of those things as moral because you have been brought up in this society which says it isn't., you are a social mammal and you have a pre-frontal cortex which allows you to empathise and love and have a conscience. Just like me!

Yeah, I would begin to say that if what you mean by 'morality' means cherry picking bible verses for things you like, then I am not a moral person.  But I do live by a code of ethics derived from philosophical literature and.....errr....you know, common sense.  

Cut someone and it hurts them.  How hard is this to understand?  

I also point out that we feel other people's pain, such as - if you seen in a movie where someone needs to slice through their skin for whatever reason (maybe they are somehow doing minimal surgery to take out a bullet in an action movie), then you will most likely have this gut feeling that evokes a strong reaction of displeasure / uncomfort.  

the ever changing Moral Zeitgeist.  Morals have changed and continue to change over time.

I (proudly) label myself as an amoral person because I don't believe morals exist.  This doesn't make me immoral, of course. 

In my opinion/definition, morals are arbitrary and absolute laws of how a person should live. I can't imagine by what basis or perspective one would determine something to be absolutely moral or immoral. What is more, I don't see the usefulness of contemplating 'rightness' as something absolute.

Ethics is a way of calculating the benefit and/or detriment of a certain set of behaviours.

Probably most behaviour that is considered morally good can be rationally calculated to be ethically beneficial.  When this happens, I see far more value in declaring the behaviour to be ethical behaviour because you know you (hopefully) have a solid rational argument as justification.  With that kind of justification, there is no real reason to talk about morality because "the behaviour is good because it is good" is not a very useful argument.

The real problems arise when ethics and morals do not agree on the 'rightness' of the behaviour.  In this case, I can't think of any examples where I would defer to morality to determine the value of the behaviour.  Most often, the kind of thing this behaviour describes is something like homosexuality or abortion, things that aren't wrong but determined evil by some segments of the population.  Evil is a word I really hate as I don't think there is any use at all to conceptualizing something as evil.  Something is evil just because it is evil is not a rational argument but an attempt at manipulation.  It is often also used when one doesn't want to consider that such behaviour is possible from a human like them, so they talk about demons and Satan and evil.  There are more nuanced examples of "moral" behaviour that is unethical, for example, organizations like World Vision that send aid to Africa without considering the consequences.  Or the Smokey the Bear campaign preventing forest fires.  "Of course that is good" I can hear people say, not thinking that fire is an important part in forest ecology and fire prevention strategies have caused great harm.

When considering behaviour, I think it is useful to consider a third category, that of a "game rule."  An example of which might be a written civil law or other social traditions.  Take, for example, jaywalking.  Jaywalking may not be immoral or unethical but if it is against the law it may not be a good thing to do simply because it is against the law.  A more illustrative example may be respecting land ownership rights. If you want to play the game, you have to abide by the rules of the game.  If you're not playing the game, those rules just seem silly.  An anarchist might break a shop window if they're not playing the game of corporate capitalism.  Likewise, an atheist may not deign to show the 'wafer' of the Eucharist the same level of respect as a Catholic would because the same game isn't being played.

Much of what is considered to be moral behaviour comes from the game of being part of a social species. Game rules may or may not be ethical. The thing about game rules is that we can generally choose not to play the game in question which would make the rule irrelevant. We presume a great deal of what we do is an inherent part of humanity, but much of it is a game.  Even civilization is a game.

Dear Folks:

I have wondered about this issue, with no 'absolute' success..LOL

I have one weird come back that might be helpful.

Grant that 'god' gave us the most complete and perfect rules of conduct. YADA YADA

Grant that humans are imperfect beings and prone to sin and nuttyness. DUH more or less

Even if we have perfect rules of conduct, humans are imperfect and will be prone to imperfect execution of the rules. If humans made the rules of conduct, would the results be any better, than what they could do with a perfect set? HUM  

So if what do YOU THINK?

I think we should thank 'god' for all the damn help! Thanks a whole lot!

I will keep tring to be a good little munkey in a suit.

@Stephen.  Don't we all decide what is right and wrong as far as morality is concerned. For instance, I think slavery is immoral and I don't mind telling anyone that. Moreover, I will keep telling them it is immoral and do what I can to try to get them to decist. Once a person's actions are causing unnecessary suffering then it becomes a moral issue in my book, not just a difference of opinion.

@blaine. That definition of morality reads like something very similar to what Athiest Exile wrote. Do you apply the same caveats as him? The Golden Rule does not apply to people in other countries (I.e. starving people in Africa) or to other species. I am sure we can be moral without God but sometimes can't understand why some atheists would limit the consistency of a moral outlook as described. Would you agree that if we are inconsistent with morality in practice, it can have the appearance at least to theists that we atheists make it up as we go along and allow in heavy doses of self-interest?

With all due respect John, doesn't everyone? With few exceptions, one being some Amish I used to know, I've found few theists who don't do exactly that.

@Arch. I wouldn't agree with you in saying everyone makes it up as they go along, but certainly a lot do. My respect goes out to people like your Amish friend who practices what they preach even though their belief in god is not well founded.

Of course we can be moral/ethical without god. This arguement with theists seems quite pointless given their core belief that atheists are moral because god created them that way. It just a big waste of time once this rabbit gets pulled out of the hat.

Just becuse we can be moral without god, doesn't mean we necessarily are. IMO to be moral you need to be consistent in the application of your morality. This means going against your own self interest on occasion. By striving to be consistent (although in actuality one cannot be totally consistent) you recognise self-interest for what it is. The 'making it up as you go along' approach doesn't work for me because I can't challenge myself to stick to the moral outlook I think is right.

So when I hear theists say atheists can't be moral without god, I don't take this as the philosophical question as likely intended. I interpret it as can atheists come up with an alternative moral system to which they will strive to live up to. Like you, I think the answer is, in the main, no. They just make it up as they go along.




You say anarchy as if it is a bad thing that must be avoided at all costs.  :D

Funny, the form of your argument very closely resembles the form of argument described in the original post, "You can't be good without god."

Are you saying people can't be good neighbours without government?

This isn't really the time or place to debate anarchist philosophy so to keep it on topic I'll put it this way. 

It is curious that most of us here have agreed, more or less, that cooperative behaviour is an emergent element of living in a social species and that a god or cosmic lawgiver is not necessary to know right from wrong.  Why then is it necessary to have an obligatory authoritative government to tell us how to live by giving us laws if we already recognize what is cooperative behaviour?

If we are ethical and cooperative enough to not require a cosmic lawgiver, why do we need a corporeal lawgiver?

David, I may not be the most intelligent person in the world (I've heard rumors, at least), so I'm having a little trouble understanding what you're saying about jury nullification.  Did you leave out a "not" or something?  Could you rephrase (or expand on) that part for me, please?


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