What makes something moral or amoral?

I feel like we've had this discussion a million times on Think Atheist in some way shape or form. I should know the answer already. Without a holy book to tell me what to do or how to act I do feel pretty.....lost.

Can I admit that out loud? Yes I feel lost. I feel pulled in many directions on a number of issues and I really don't know how to resolve this turmoil. 

So my question is really that simple:

What makes something moral or amoral?

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This is what I've got so far.  http://yellowgrain.co.uk/

How animals act among each other was worked out via evolution, until brains and communication skills advanced and culture developed. Our species didn't used to have so much choice, as the daily rule was to just survive, and survive as a group. This happened long before any scriptures were produced.

Now we "modern" humans are faced with more choices. I like Clay Shirky's phrase "cognitive surplus", and the question of what we humans should be doing with it. Perhaps this question was first expressed and answered (albeit in a naive, amateur fashion) in the story of Adam and Eve, facing new knowledge and new decisions. So "morality" became a topic to intellectualize over, including all kinds of speculation. Moralism and idealisms could now be posited, and even enforced or at least culturally ingrained.

It may not even be important how exactly we define morals and morality. Culture operates most smoothly when basic rules of behavior are generally acknowledged by society to exist, which in itself is profoundly effective at how individuals or parts of society can plan and act, so that it "fits" with society and enables more predictable outcomes. The specific rules themselves are not as important as we might think. What's important is that cooperation and uniform expectations are made possible when rules--even when arbitrary--are generally understood.

Look at the variation of such rules around the world, often incompatible between cultures. The specific rules vary, but the pressure to conform is always there, as is the pressure to consider other society's morals as strange or inferior. In the modern world, this is where the specific rules can clash and become new topics of discussion, and reflection about what can and should be done to ease or erase the conflicts.

I think it's a good thing to constantly review and speculate together over what our specific rules should be, and how much we should tolerate other viewpoints and customs. Ultimately what we're faced with are questions about what rules society should enforce (e.g. by law with due process), and what rogue behaviors we choose to tolerate and address.

Again, it's not the specific rules themselves that are as important as the fact that we feel a need to assume behavioral rules that will facilitate cooperation with our group. The profound question (to me) comes when considering the scope of our tolerance, influence and behavioral enforcement to other groups (and countries), while realizing how our supposedly sacred/customary rules have significantly arbitrary origins.

+1 for parsimony and jackpot

Christians get their morality from their genetics and cultural environment, just as you or I might, and not from the supposed realm of the supernatural.

While I agree with you that we Christians learn morality from our cultural environment, I would argue that is indeed the value of religion.  It provides a cultural environment in which morality is regularly discussed, considered, reflected on, and reinforced ... often in ways that are opposed by other aspects of prevailing culture, as well as biological imperatives.

I would love to know how you think that genetics encodes the ten commandments, though.  The genetic arguments here are grossly overstated and show a lack of understanding of biology.

Another one of Bob's innumerable arguments for religion's utility, rather than its truth. He's merely selling a product here; he's a lobbyist for what amounts to a cultural placebo. Even if everybody on TA agreed that religion was a good thing for people, nobody would suddenly be able to believe in God.

Nobody wants you to believe in God, @Stultz.   If folks here agreed that religion can be a good thing for some people, then that would just move them into a-theism, and away from what I view as an occasionally irrational anti-theism.

I'm a lobbyist for that, I guess.  More by way of being an advocate for civility and open-mindedness than anything else.

Christians get their morality from their genetics and cultural environment, just as you or I might, and not from the supposed realm of the supernatural.

I see too much biological/genetic emphasis on the bases of morality, at least wrt specific moral codes. I think it makes more sense to understand that the need to feel moral and adhere to moral standards emerges from the need that most social animals have to conform to a common code of behavior, and in fact that code is often enforced by a leader in the pack. I.e., there is a built-in need (starting from when the young play together) to establish and agree upon rules for one's in-group, and remain ignorant of or prejudiced against those of an out-group. It happens that the closer to divine the group leader is (or leaders are) perceived to be, the more moral authority and credibility they are assigned, and the more unified the group can act and sometimes compete with out-groups.

(Jim, I'm not picking on you in particular. Simon P. also emphasizes biological origins of morality. In a way, it's true, but I'm emphasizing that the need to learn and adhere to a moral code is more important to an in-group's cooperative behavior than are the actual specific rules of the moral code.)

Germany in 1937. You are hiding a family of Jews in your attic. The SS knocks at your door and asks if you know the whereabouts of any Jews. What do you say?

I think this is where The Golden Rule comes in.

Even though it isn't displaying here, my email tells me you wrote...

Unseen: I think this is where The Golden Rule comes in.

That's probably the worst thing you could say.

I'm not saying it. I'm supposing that's what a Christian would say.

I think you're right, the Golden Rule, so far as it is a rule, would apply: you would feel your common humanity with the Jews you are hiding and would lie to the SS officers to save them. 

Either that or you'd recognize that the Commandment is "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

That, or you'd recognize Yahweh's rule against lying is found in Leviticus, not in the Ten Commandments.

Umm... you do realize that the Ten Commandments are in Leviticus, right? 

And yes, we'd expect that the admonition against falsehood harming another appear in lots of places.  That's why we refer to it as natural law.  It would be problematic if it did not.


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