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?
Do androids dream of electric sheep?
@Blaine - "Do animals engage in conceptual thought?"
You and I are animals, Blaine, and while I can't speak for you, I'm pretty sure I do.
I sigh repeatedly during these discussions because, as atheists, we all should really have a better answer than I see most of us having.
An answer to the question has to include a critique of the premise that the theist has the kind of objective basis for morality that she is saying atheists don't, a defense of the notion that atheists are moral, and a discussion of how all of us (not just atheists) came to have moral intuitions and why we should want to follow them. You have to justify not just that we can have morality divorced from religion but also why we would want to be moral without religion, without a hope for eternal reward or the threat of punishment.
Replying with anything that only points to evolution doesn't tell the full story. Because then you stumble across a modified Euthyphro dilemma– are we to believe that evolution gave us the Right morality or are we to believe that the Right morality is Right simply because evolution gave it to us? If the first, that seems an extraordinary coincidence– how is it that a completely undirected natural process just happened to make us into creatures that have the Right moral intuitions and want to keep to them? (Remember, lest you reply with a story about how that would have been adaptive, in an environment made up of people that cooperate and are altruistic, it's the cheater, not the cooperator that will apparently be most successful– the cheater will reap the benefits of everyone else's cooperation without having to put anything in to the system. But if that's true then the whole thing would quickly break down as more and more people cheat on a system of cooperation and altruism– cheating would be adaptive in such an environment!) And if the second, then what is Right is only arbitrarily Right; Right only insofar as evolution happened to instill it in us. And that's not a pleasant thought given how we prefer to think about right and wrong.
So here's the outline:
The theist maintains she has objective morality. Does she in fact given what she must mean by "objective" in this context?
The theist maintains that, without religion, atheists cannot be moral. This is easy enough to check– how healthy are the least religious societies on Earth? On the theist's assertions, we should expect the least religious societies to be the least healthy. If the facts are different, the theist's assertion is undermined. However, she may argue that society simply piggy backs its morality onto the Christian worldview, that even atheists are relying on moral principles derived from religion, they simply don't know or acknowledge it. So we also have to answer the next question...
Having established that atheists are moral and that a dependence upon religion for morality provides no advantages to society, we have to establish where our moral intuitions come from and respond to the theist's charge above about society getting its morality from religion without acknowledging it. So where does it come from then? Evolution of course, but ALSO emotions and game theory. If done properly, this should provide an answer to the modified Euthyphro above.
I am a little over halfway through Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. Wherein he discusses at length the development of morality on an intuitive and societal level. It is a quite fascinating read and I must thank you for the recommendation. My views on religion and it's propagation are changing as I continue through this book. Two Thumb's Up.
Thrilled to hear it Ed! That's one of THE MOST eye-opening books when it comes to a host of subjects and I wish more of us would read it. The first section where he debunks all of the standard and commonly held beliefs about the origin of religion is worth the price of the book alone when it comes to consciousness-raising and education.
If anyone reading this is interested, the book is available in TA's Amazon bookstore. You pay no more than buying it from Amazon direct and shipping is just as cheap and just as quick, but in buying it this way your purchase goes to support the site!
Kudos, Nelson. Clearly you have spent time thinking about this - I have too but I am still young and developing my axioms and arguments for these kinds of discussions. I really appreciate your outline above, thanks!
No problem whatsoever! And there's nothing wrong with not having read much on a subject yet. The problem is failing to acknowledge that we haven't or being satisfied that we haven't. Got to keep learning! :)
I can suggest some titles for reading if you like. Lemme know!
Nelson I agree with all but the last two paragraphs. If a nation projects that it has operable nuclear ICBM's, that illusion will keep other nations from invading it. In a similar way, religion provides the advantage of providing the illusion that morals are objective and thus justified to observe.
The illusion that X is objective can convince someone that X is justified. Religion provides both the illusion and the justification.
If you remove the illusion without some new means of justification, X is no longer justified.
Atheists do piggyback morals from society in terms of human rights, ect. The ones that relate to tribal living are safe, but evolution has only developed our morality to the tribal level. This does not account for human rights as a general principle, and actions against other and perhaps inferior "tribes".
This is why I argue that morality has always been based on superiority of one action over another, and thus is the basis on which morality can be examined for justifiability, and found to be justifiable.
I argue due to the capacity for error, actions must be justifiable. Propensity for error is an attribute of an inferior species in terms of long-term evolutionary development.
Morality is based on the need by humans for social interaction. This social interaction is driven by the knowledge that cooperation is essential to one's survival. As a species we develop moral intuitions starting at a young age. This development of a specific inference system early on provides us with a specialized moral sense that underlies ethical intuitions. Much of this is, of course, occurring in our subconscious.
A moral judgement could result in an action that might be considered superior to another but the key concern is does the action provide a benefit to others or a suffering. I would say it is unfair to characterize our present moral development as only being at the tribal level. I would say it much more sophisticated than that.
"Our evolved dispositions connect specific emotional states to specific situations of social interaction." -Boyer Morals do vary from culture to culture but not in their connection to social interaction.
So for anyone that thinks modern man has evolved over tens of thousands of years it is quite obvious that the roots of morality are deeply embedded in the social development of our primitive ancestors. All of which predates the notions of organized religion.
@Ed. I think that misses the point though.
We have experienced social evolution, but that social moral evolution has been as a result of what religion provided. It provided a justification for the superiority of morality over immorality.
I see no evidence that suggests that tribal people groups are less morally developed than those in first world countries.
They are connected to social interaction but are not yet innate enough to survive without a rational justification for why being moral is superior to being immoral. That justification is only provided at the moment by religion, and that is why I said religion provides the advantage of providing the illusion that morals are objective and thus justified to observe. Without it, there is no reason to have morality beyond the social level, which is who you interact with daily.
Our social evolution has been impacted by religion no doubt. But that has only been in the past few thousands of years compared to hundreds of thousands of years of development w/o the influences of modern religion.
I agree that moral development is just as evident in tribal groups as 1st world countries.
Morals are a social tool. Religion attempts to define that morality for us but in fact is not necessary. I don't relate to your idea that morals are objective. On the contrary I think they are very subjective instead. Every human develops a moral sense through intuition and the use of inference systems specific to the domain of morality. Religion tries to provide a platform of expectations that are unnecessary in a social environment.