I believe that morality is derived from a combination of factors and sources.

Family, culture and religion definitely influence morality. Those "seekers" out there who actually read scripture, philosophy and literary classics for their insights into the human condition are also influenced by their quest. Finally, there's abundant evidence that evolution contributes a hereditary component to morality. Empathy and altruism have obvious survival value for social animals such as us humans and other primates.

But none of these factors are necessarily dominant, nor are they the same for everybody. For instance, scriptural influence can be undone by a personal quest.

The factor I find most intriguing is the evolution of empathy. In our tribal days, before religion existed, experience informed us of what hurt or angered us, and empathy told us that the same things probably hurt and angered others as well. This combination of experience and empathy is enough to instill a generalized "sense" of the Golden Rule between tribe members -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . because we need each other to survive. The Golden Rule, in practice, can be further distilled to: "Do no unnecessary harm."

Nobody is born with a moral code, of course, but empathy and experience are commonly shared by virtually all of us (except aberrant cases): it's part of the human condition. We start developing empathy as toddlers, maybe earlier. As we mature, this "moral intuition" matures: often without our realizing it. This moral intuition is the crux of the Hippocratic Oath and should be the essential principle of our laws. I believe it constitutes a moral substrate that is often more powerful, in some of us, than the morality we learn from other factors. I think this is because it's what we learn first-hand, through observation and experience. All the other sources I can think of are second-hand, from: other people, scripture, literature and authorities.

We actually see the power of moral intuition (and/or other non-religious sources of morality) at work when we consider religious reforms. We no longer tolerate slavery, the subjugation of women, battlefield excesses, child brides, or criminal punishments disproportionate to the crimes committed. These are all values upheld by the Bible, yet we've long since rejected them. In effect, our non-religious morality has overruled and usurped religious morality. Our non-religious morality actually decides what IS religiously moral.

If our own morality actually decides what is religiously moral -- why have religious morality in the first place?

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Damn these threads are EVEN HARDER to follow now. We may need to petition the admin to revert to the prior format. Actually, other forums and BBSs, have more logical formats . . . can't understand clinging to this one!

Yeah, I don't particularly care with threaded discussions that are formatted as threaded discussions, if you know what I mean. Maybe this would be more effective if we moved it to a different thread, but I can't promise I'll be all that active. The semester is winding down to the last few weeks and I have projects to do (and start ¬_¬).

. . . I can't distinguish a difference between evolving morality and finding better ways of being moral. The word, evolving, in this case is not used technically but we all know what you mean. So what's the difference?

I know it sounds like nuance, but there are some key differences (as I said, reasoning based on society, versus reasoning based on the underlying structure of society).

I think this discussion will be more interesting if we explore your ideas instead of debate them. To that end, my prior post (if you can find the damn thing) has hitched its wagon to yours. Please respond to that one and let's move on.

Heh, yeah, there's no use in trying to race a half-built car (a generous comparison). As for exploring the idea, that's essentially what I'm doing now. If nothing else, this whole discussion has forced me to think about it in more detail and lay out some ideas while rejecting others I'd been flirting with.
I must say that desirism (the morality code more or less invented by "Atheist Ethicist") is pretty on the mark when it comes to some sort of moral code that doesn't come from religion or evolution, and it isn't subjective in the sense that it varies from person to person.
However, it does require maturity and understanding to really understand this "code" or whatever you want to call it, and children would never get it, and a lot of adults would never want to take the time to understand it (which is completely understandable, it's pretty complicated and not really applicable to every day life).
I know there are plenty of people in the world that have loved to be horrible people and seen no fault in it, whether it's because of religion or just some sort of mental instability, but I'm pretty confident the general population would all say murder is bad, or the worst of the worst at least that torturing a child is bad. There is most definitely a general human understanding (with lots of exceptions, but these are still the minority) that there are some bad things across the board. Does that mean it is inherently wrong or that it's seen as wrong because of the stipulations of a moral code? I would say it's because it's seen as wrong, as would desirism, because it requires some sort of thought process to determine somethings placement in the "good---bad" scale. But religious people I think see things as inherently wrong. Like if a tree falls in the woods and no ones hears it does it make a sound sort of thing. If there's no one to say if something is right or wrong, IMO, it can't be determined, since right or wrong is a human creation, but religious people think it can.
I think the reason people have religious morality is for quite a few reasons:
1) control
2) to explain the "gut" feeling that most people share that some things are wrong. If the tree fell in the woods and no one hears it it does make a sound sort of thing, to go back to what I was saying before.
3) control
4) to have some sort of system to judge the state of ones soul.
5) control
6) it doesn't require any sort of understanding to "get" religious morality - god said it was wrong, so it's wrong.
I'm sure there are more, but I definitely think control is the biggest reason.

I agree in that religious morality is decided by morality of the time (slavery is an excellent example, like you said), but I think religious people are completely blind to this, just like they are to so many other things.
Hi Danielle,

I read the little 44-page booklet, "What is Morality? Meta-ethics in Plain Talk", by Luke Muehlhauser (Atheist Ethicist). This tract, based on the ideas of Alonzo Fyfe, comes as close to an objective system of morality as I've yet seen.

His "Desire Utilitarianism" sounds pretty good, just as utilitarianism itself sounds pretty good. The problem with any form of utilitarianism is the question of who decides what is the "greatest good for the greatest number of people". Need I point out that Hitler was a staunch supporter of utilitarianism and his ethnic cleansing had a utilitarian rationale? The question of who decides is a biggie.

All throughout my reading of this book, I kept thinking that desires aren't an objective source of morality -- rather, they are subjective manifestations of the objective source: the survival instinct. Whether our desires are for: sex, food, shelter, possessions, security, emotions, wealth, altruistic deeds, or whatever, they arise, filtered through our psyche, as our own personal, subjective, manifestations of the survival instinct that drives all natural beings. It kept bothering me that Luke Muehlhauser kept saying our desires are objective because it's clear that nothing is more subjective than our desires.

In the same way, I don't think utilitarianism is an objective philosophy because there's always the question of who decides what's best for us. Here, again, the survival instinct looms large. A better argument could be made that what's best for us is that which best increases our chances of survival as individuals and as a species. As a naturalist, this seems more objective to me than utilitarianism.

So, to my point of view, if anything is the objective criteria for judging morality, it's survival. This is an idea that I've only just started to think about in the last few days . . . because of the discussion between Frink and I in this thread. Desire utilitarianism is not as "pure" or "clean" a basis for morality as is a system built on survival. Survival is an objective force in nature that we can't deny or ignore. Desires and utilitarianism, on the other hand, are subjective in the final analysis.

To me, Desire Utilitarianism is a moral system based on the silhouette of the source. It's very close to an objective system because it's very close to the objective source. But desires aren't the source: survival is.
At first, I thought Frink's "objective moral standard" was an absurd notion. Once I quit resisting the thesis, I realized that survival is THE prime directive and therefor an objective standard by which morality might be based. This standard is objective but I still maintain that any morality derived from it MUST inevitably be relative.

Nature is, as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “red in tooth and claw”. It has no morals. Morality is a human construct that usually reflects our social norms. As such, morality is formed by an amalgam of influences from family, religion, culture, evolution and the arts. This amalgam of influences varies from person to person and is relative to our exposure to, and experience with, these influences.

Almost half the human race subscribes to a religion that claims morality is objective because it is handed down by (an Abrahamic) God. Most of the rest of us believe that morality is relative and subjective. Can morality be objective without being handed down by God? It’s commonly claimed, by the religious, that it can not – that, without God, morality has no authority.

Nature may not have any morals but it does have a prime directive that compels all living organisms: Survive. We eat, drink, breathe and procreate for survival. At all levels: genetic, individual, cultural and across species, survival dictates the terms of life. Survival is a basic, objective, fact of life: shouldn’t morality conform to it? Could there be a more objective, fundamental, basis for morality? If so, what is it?

Morality, as a human construct, can only be relative. There are no morals "in the wild" waiting to be discovered. Unlike morality based on scripture, morality based on survival enjoys a solid, objective, foundation: those things that best enhance and promote survival are better than those things that don’t. Though the prime directive is objective, any morality derived from it would still be relative because, in the end, we decide, individually, what best conforms to the prime directive. Even the utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number" philosophy suffers from this relativity: who decides what is the greatest good or who the beneficiaries would be?

But at least we would have an objective standard -- a source -- for morality that reasonable people can agree is objective and primary. So, assuming we formulate morality based on survival, what would the differences and consequences be for us as a species?

Let's take North Korea and Iran, for example. Both are unstable, rogue, nations with nuclear ambitions. Wouldn't survival be best served if we stripped them of nuclear capabilities? Many might argue that all nuclear nations should be stripped of their nuclear capabilities. That would certainly make our species more likely to survive but can we really put that genie back in the bottle? Is it truly desirable? Perhaps we need to keep nuclear weapons to avert a global catastrophe from a rogue meteor on a collision course with Earth.

In the end, geopolitics would still prevail in this scenario because we, as individuals, would still decide what is right and wrong. At all levels, we decide. The prime directive is the objective source. Morality distances us from the source and its objectivity. It's inescapable. We just need to be careful to keep the source in sight as much as possible.
Now you're getting it. The only difference here is that pure survival (which I consider the ultimate answer to "what is the purpose of life?") would be the starting point, suffering of organisms comes next, then it moves on to species (at least right now. I think a case can be made for species preceding suffering, but haven't explored it much yet). Mine focuses on human survival as a rational, socially-dependent species, but follows from the prime directive.

As an aside, thanks for challenging my ideas. It more or less forced me to think about them in greater detail. Anyway, I mentioned it to my ethics professor last week. He informed me that he had similar ideas. We're meeting this weekend to share our thoughts on the matter. I'll let you know how it goes.
Yes, I agree with you. An interesting aspect of this topic from Claude Levi-Strauss--The Structural Study of Myth --

"What constitutes a myth is not the individual versions, but all the versions together. In studying myth, what one does is study as many versions of the myth as can be found, then abstract from those versions a general pattern or sequence."

The specific problem that I have with religious or derived morality is that the arrow of logic points backwards. Rather than finding common threads which lead to evolutionary or foundational truth; religious dogma strives to reach general conclusions from specific myth sources.

But all moral structure builds upon genetic or materialistic body/mind sources -- some narratives claim exclusive status because of instructions written in iron age texts. The argument is invalid.
I would contend that morality is the pop culture of the time and will hold true in religious and non religious contexts.
The books of the Abrahamic religions show women as possessions, slavery as perfectly justified, and religious killings as righteous. This was the beliefs of the time and, in the Middle East, we still see these behaviors in their culture. The literature and music still reflects this way of thought in some cases.

In the US, we as a people decided that slavery was wrong(not to say others did not make the same decision), and even fought over it. We as a people decided that women were not possessions (again, not to say that other countries didn't make the same decision) and women's sufferage affirmed their right to vote.
None of the major religious texts led to these decisions or even supported it. Our literature and music today reflects this in many different ways considering the freedoms we enjoy and in some cases, exploit.

I like what Lenny Bruce said about this when he said, "If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses."

I hope that I got the spirit of the conversation correct, and apologize if I did not.
Hi Orlandin,

I would have to disagree that "morality is the pop culture of the time" if you mean that morality is a preoccupation of contemporary culture. I think it's more likely that by , "the pop culture of the time", you mean that morality is relative to the era being examined. The subjugation of women, slavery, and the death penalty for heresy and fornication were morally "normal" in the Biblical era. Judaism and Christianity have long since outgrown these primitive notions of morality but Islam appears impervious to the same reforms. Sharia law is a throwback to civilization at its most primitive. I'd have to say that the non-Islamic world has evolved, morally, and accepts human rights, equality and freedom of speech -- all of which are anathema to Islam.

If survival is the ultimate prime directive and cooperation is the moral means to best ensure survival, then cooperation as an objective moral standard must necessarily reject all revealed religions. It can be reasonably asserted that revealed religions are THE most divisive influence in the history of mankind. Divisiveness is the opposite of cooperation. As the world becomes smaller, survival demands cooperation ever louder and louder.
I agree with most of what you have said here, although I will add that Jonathan Haidt from U of Virginia posted a survey to which 23 000 people replied, in which he asked what mattered to them from a moral standpoint. Nearly all 23 000 people agreed that harm and fairness are moral matters, and about half agreed that purity, ingroup loyalty and respect for authority were moral matters. That to me indicates that the hereditary components of morality weigh a lot, and that it's safe to say there are some absolutes. This is my main objection to moral relativism. I do want to stress though that while I don't agree with morality being entirely relative, I do think your supporting evidence is all good.
Hi Michael,

It's a bit of a coincidence that I see your post (posted just 3 hours ago) because my email account is all screwed up and I'm not receiving notices of replies. Guess I'll have to change my email address for TA.

And I see that Orlandin replied last December and I never knew about it!

My thinking on this subject has expanded quite a bit since last November. Survival is still the ultimate prime directive but the functional basis for morality (by my thinking) is cooperation. This is because we're social animals and because morality has no context outside of a social framework. Cooperation is an evolutionary prerequisite to peaceful coexistence: whether that be in clans, tribes, villages, towns, cities, etc.

By definition, cooperation, as an objective moral standard, involves interaction with others. It doesn't apply to things you do that does not affect others. Masturbation, comes to mind here. With cooperation as an objective moral standard, masturbation would not be a moral issue.

But most of our concerns do not occur in a vacuum. Others are normally involved. Jesus took cooperation to it's logical extreme: "Turn the other cheek". I'm not sure how moral that really is because the one getting slapped is also part of the social equation. If cooperation is an objective moral standard based on survival, then making oneself a human doormat is not being cooperative . . . it's being altruistic.

Altruism might be beautiful to the soldiers saved when a comrade dives on a grenade but it would have been tragic if EVERYBODY dived on that grenade. Besides, we can't reasonably expect people to sacrifice their lives for others in such a suicidal manner.

So, as an objective moral standard that complies with the prime directive (survival) cooperation is more logical than altruism, it seems to me. Besides, wouldn't altruism be meaningless if everybody practiced it faithfully? And how do we second-guess what it is others would have us sacrifice for them? Also: masochists might enjoy sacrificing their own interests for the sake of others but what is their motive? A truly altruistic person is more likely to suffer from neuroses than from sainthood.

I've been hard-pressed to think of a social situation that is not amenable to cooperation as an objective moral standard. How about it . . . can anybody think of a situation where cooperation would fail to address a moral problem?


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