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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How do you people manage to turn every topic into an argument about eating animals? Urgh...

I think it's caused by iron deficiency

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.

@Blaine. I am not sure why you bring up the issue of conceptual thought in (other) animals but you should check a short video by Frans de Waal on the moral behaviour of animals. It's a TED talk and absolutely fascinating. Deals with chimps and elephants.

Why would you exclude all other animals from moral consideration? Is it just on intelligence? Do other people deserve moral consideration? What about those people not as intelligent as other animals, either temporarily (babies) or permenently like senile, insane etc?

Nelson,

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.

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!

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.  

 

Ed, this is really two parts.  I am replying to an earlier post so it doesn't shrink the text. Morals are a social tool, but since the dawn of human civilization, religion has been found to exist.  We existed on the tribal level before that, and there is no way to measure how long supernatural beliefs have existed, but we know for certain that they existed at the dawn of civilization when man stepped beyond tribal living.  We know this from excavations at Jericho, Ain Ghazal and others.

I think that many have it backwards.  They see it as religion took over morality.  Actually what happened was that belief in supernatural realities appeared and since morality was already incorporated into every other part of life, it was then incorporated into religion.   The fact is that human morality is so weak that social philosophy trumps it every time the two compete. 

See, the relational innate sense of morality is not as strong as people would think.  People even see breakdown in family moral standards. If nurtured, it can be made strong, but not without justification beyond benefit. It absolutely requires justification because it has to hold its own against social philosophy and social rulemaking.  

This is the very thing that made it possible for man to develop civilizations, because a justified moral code that extends past the local social level was required for that.  Kings were to be obeyed because they were divinely sanctioned.  Splintering was made more difficult, and cities grew larger.  Civilizations revolved around the priestly and cultic practices.  Festivals binding each other together created unity and a sense of camaraderie. 

Now we have declared Religion obsolete.  But the very foundations of civilized society are built upon it.  Of course morality as it has been practiced is subjective.  It always was.  It was the illusion of objectivity though that gave it its benefit.

Morality has evolved four times:

First it was on benefit alone.  Individuals did not do things if consequences of the action was a threat to quality of life.

Over time, individuals developed stronger tendencies toward moral actions, and morality gained innate properties.  Morality also still had consequences for immorality.

Next, morality was incorporated into supernatural belief and became sacred.  Then morality was sacred, innnate and had consequences for noncompliance.

Now we are at where we are now.  Atheists rest as Nelson put it that morality is good, but we have no unified rational reason for why it is good.  That is an irrational preference for morality.

I propose a fifth evolution of morality in which moral actions are justified on first principles of superiority. On this, accuracy trumps error. Best action becomes the new "right thing to do".

Morals can be objective, because morals have always been based on the foundation that good is superior to evil because sacred is superior to everything.  

This evolution of morality would provide a solid basis on which something can be measured.  Of course the old ways of measuring morality are subjective.  However, superiority is a solid basis because things are superior to others, whereas nothing is sacred.  It doesn't matter that most will differ on what is superior.  Most differ on what is moral.  However, superior provides a basis for justification of having morality in the first place.  

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