What follows completely replaces the original discussion post.

I wrote a blog post, a few months back, that wondered if nature's prime directive (survival) could be used as the basis for morality. Since then, I've realized that I missed the most important point of all: survival of our species depends on cooperation. Survival is the purpose of cooperation, so survival is still the basis of morality but the operative principle is cooperation. This is because we are intelligent social animals who can choose to cooperate instead of fight or kill. Nature may be "red in tooth and claw" be we are more than mere animals.

One could pose moral questions in context of cooperation but I don't think humans can achieve perfect objectivity with any moral standard or principle. Everything gets interpreted subjectively and this is especially true with morality. People tend to bend reason to suit their existing ideas and beliefs.

Having said all that: I'd like to test both objectivity and cooperation as tools for moral decisions. I haven't found any moral quandary that can't be analyzed in context of cooperation. But the analysis is always MY application of cooperation. This doesn't automatically make it invalid but I find it hard to believe that humans can reach a consensus based on ANYBODY'S application of cooperation.

The lure of an objective moral principle or standard is, of course, as a tool to settle disputes and make public (and private) policy. Some would say that we already have an objective moral standard: based on the Bible or Quran or whatever. But there's a serious logical problem with basing morality on God's (or Allah's) will . . .

. . . If something is good because God wills it, why does God will it? Does he have a reason? If he has a reason, then good exists independent of God. If he has no reason, then good exists at the whim of God. "Thou shalt not kill" could just as easily be "Thou shalt not cover your bodies" if God has no reason for what he wants or likes.

If we can't logically look to God for our morality, we need to look elsewhere. If morality is not to be found in the supernatural realm, that leaves us with the natural realm. Is there a natural principle for morality that would apply to all intelligent life (humans)? I say that, if there is an objective moral standard, cooperation must be it. If you know of a better standard, please tell me what it is. If you don't, then give me a scenario in which cooperation would fail as an objective moral standard.

P.S.The word, "altruism" has a different meaning in science than it does to us laymen. Most dictionaries give the layman definition first, then the scientific definition.

According to (Webster's) Dictionary.com, altruism is:

1. The principle or practice of unselfish concern for, or devotion to, the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).2. Animal Behavior. Behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind, as a warning cry that reveals the location of the caller to a predator.

According to OxfordDictionaries.com, altruism is:

1. Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others2. Zoology. Behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense

Altruism is the opposite of selfishness. An altruistic person is motivated by others instead of himself. A purely altruistic person is entirely selfless. Please note that all these definitions define altruism as a one-way street. Concern is for others and not for one's self ("unselfish", "disinterested", "selfless", "at its own expense", "opposed to egoism").

I would agree that we feel great respect for the soldier who dives onto a hand grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers . . . or the fireman who races into a burning building to save people trapped inside. Heroism inspires and impresses us by its selflessness. But there are more common, mundane, forms of altruism as well. There are people who are masochists or emotionally needy or have low self esteem who sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others. Often, there's a religious component to their behavior because the Bible teaches that pride is a bad thing and that all credit goes to God. Whether or not these people are motivated by masochism, self-loathing or religion, they often evoke pity or disgust from us because they make human doormats of themselves. Despite what the Bible says, pride is normal and healthy unless in excess. So I disagree that "altruistic alternatives are good": some (if not most) clearly are not.

However, cooperation is based on mutual benefit and respect. This is more rational than behavior based on altruism. For this reason, I've excluded altruism, in favor of cooperation, from the main discussion.

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Replies to This Discussion

Ooh lots of questions to wrestle with here in a short post!

Survival as a Moral Standard= us vs them, tribalism, specie-ism, racism... we've played that card already and have evolved past it, or the need for it. We're not involved in such a brutal fight for our survival like our ancestors were, or other animals are now. Now what benefits all of us is cooperation since we've all collectively agreed not to kill each other (or a large majority of us have). The standard is now cooperation/mutual benefit. In the human world, nature does not so much insist on death for survival; it insists on harmony to a large degree. Killing is now immoral because the current standard of our society is, like I said, cooperation. Yeah, birth control would be a better option... if you could convince a person they didn't have the right to decide if they wanted to reproduce. Maybe we're going in that direction. If "cooperation" is the standard, then people will hopefully learn to cooperate and do what's best for everyone (even them)!

Since there are still more religious people than non-religious, trying to kill them all would backfire. You'd make martyrs out of them and strengthen their resolve that much more. They're bigger, stronger and dumber than us... which is a dangerous combination. For the same reason you can't kill the religious folk, you can't outlaw their religion. You just make them the persecuted bunch they always believed they would become and that would strengthen their faith (in the trenches). I think trying to reason with them directly is a waste of time. I think humoring them is bad because it means they are being validated. Obviously, don't join them. I think we're doing the best thing possible: publicly voicing our own disbelief, claiming our own rights as humans, making information available to those who seek it... no one deconverted me, after all. I lost my faith because people vocalized their opinions without pushing them on me personally. Available information is key! There will always be doubters in the ranks of the religious, and it's them we're trying to reach.

I think the moral standard changes with the zeitgeist, and it seems that moral standard is improving with time. We can only hope it'll stay on course! (with a nudge or ten along the way)
Hi Cara,

So cooperation could be the best model for survival, no? Or, perhaps, cooperation is also a prime directive? Nature may be red in tooth and claw but it also abounds with examples of cooperation and peaceful coexistence.

I've been growing pessimistic about mankind's long-term prospects for survival. My thinking is obviously jaded if I can look for morality in nature and completely miss cooperation. This is particularly glaring when I consider that I've longed believed that empathy is crucial for morality.

Thanks for your reply and your course correction to my rational integrity.

I've updated my original topic post to discount the emphasis on survival and to seek instead examples of how to apply cooperation as an objective moral standard.

I'd like to start by applying the principles of cooperation to one of the biggest problems of the modern era: Islamic militancy. This is my first stab at the idea . . . so expect modifications to come :-)

If cooperation is truly an objective moral standard that we can derive from nature, perhaps we can apply it to social, legal and religious values to help determine how best to resolve conflicts between Western and Islamic values.

Freedom is a core value of Western societies. One common principle of freedom is that it ends for one man where it impinges on the freedom of another. This is a clear manifestation of cooperation. Cooperation requires reasonable recognition of the worth of others. In a pluralistic society, such as the U.S., divergent ideologies are protected from each other by freedom of speech, assembly and religion. The separation of church and state further ensures that power isn't multiplied by the clergy.

These principles, values and laws are anathema to Islamic societies. All aspects of social, legal, religious and private life are prescribed by Sharia law - which is, in turn, derived from Islamic holy texts (hadiths and Quran).

These 2 value systems are at complete loggerheads. How should they accommodate each other? Can cooperation really be our guide to peaceful coexistence? If the principles of cooperation demand that almost all concessions and compromises come from one side of the conflict, should we ignore those principles for the sake of peace?

I think that, if there is an objective moral standard - and cooperation is it - then we should stand by our moral convictions. If the moral principles of cooperation tell us that the subjugation of women is wrong, then we should not allow it. If destroying art depicting God is wrong, then we should not allow it. If Jihad is wrong, we should not allow it. If censorship of web sites or publications critical of Islam is wrong, then we should not allow it.

The West is guilty of many wrongs too. We grab the lion's share of the world's resources and we sometimes wield our influence like bullies. If we're going to apply the moral standard of cooperation, we need to apply it first to ourselves. Only by doing so can we command the respect and cooperation of others.

With Islamic militancy increasing ever since Ayatollah Khomeini bitch-slapped the U.S. (and the entire free world) senseless, we need some way to know the best path forward. An objective moral standard could show us the way - if we have the guts to do stick with it.
I'm not saying cooperation is an objective moral standard. I'm saying: "What if it were?" Like you, I'm dubious of ANY objective moral standard. But I wanted to identify SOMETHING that COULD fit the bill. I like the idea of cooperation as an objective moral standard because it's a common feature of social animals and because it's a positive way to approach survival.

So, if we accept cooperation as an objective moral standard, how can we stress-test it? I figured a complex issue like Islamic militancy would be a good place to start. I'm hoping that others will either support or dismantle the idea; particularly as applied to the "clash of civilizations" (the West and Islam).
Hi Larry,

I agree with almost everything you wrote. The fact is, the U.S. does force itself on other nations when our government believes our "national interests" or way of life is at stake otherwise. Iraq was invaded to protect our national interests and way of life: namely the free flow of Mid-East oil so that we can continue consuming it without risk of interruption. However, terrorism is a just cause for military action. I don't think we're going about it the best way possible but squashing terrorism is a worthy goal of itself.

An objective moral standard would enable more people to recognize their own errors and the errors of their own governments. But would we really care if we are wrong? Would we quit meddling in the affairs of other countries? Would Saudi Arabia close their Wahhabi madrasas around the world? It's probably a mistake to assume our leaders are guided by their morality . . . after all, they got where they are by being consummate politicians.
So, Larry, you're a Canadian, huh?

With global warming, you guys are in for some good times.

But back to your post. I hate to say it, but your lambasting of the U.S. is a little one-sided. Don't get me wrong . . . we've made (and continue to make) many mistakes. But who really expects otherwise? Does history have an example of a more tolerant and less imperialistic world power?

Seriously. The Soviet Union expanded and maintained their territory by military might. The U.S., on the other hand, rebuilt the infrastructure and economies of their worst enemies: Germany and Japan. Yes, it's true . . . we exploited 3rd world countries but this is no different than our imperialistic predecessors, Great Britain and France and Spain and Holland and Portugal, ad infinitum. Two wrongs don't make a right but, come on . . . . couldn't we own ALL of the Americas (including Canada) if we wanted to?
Larry, I actually agree with your assessment of the USA. I would say most of the atheists on this site would agree with you that are from here. You have to allow for the fact that not all Americans are pleased with their government, or the fact we're in a losing battle with Iraq, or the fact we're being denied health care. I could go on and on about how dissatisfied I am with my country; how disenchanted/disgusted with all the celebrities and people who worship them I am; how annoyed that our country leads in obesity statistics. You're right, as a nation, the USA is guilty of some horrifying actions.

Please have the ability, though, to separate the individual from his or her country. Just as you stated, we don't have the kind of freedom our leaders want us to believe we do. That being the case, I've had no say in how my country has handled its relations with other countries.

When I talk about Islam, I'm able to separate the individual Muslim from the institution of religion to which they belong. I can see their value and how they don't necessarily fit the stereotype that comes along with the religion they subscribe to. In that sense, you're being very hypocritical. All your years of experience have proven that ALL Americans are the same... but you can give Muslims a chance to rise above the assumptions made about them? Please. Stop throwing the American baby out with the "US of A" bathwater.
A well-reasoned response, Cara. But I see no reply from Larry. It deserves one.
These principles, values and laws are anathema to Islamic societies.

I completely agree with that statement, and I definitely see Islam as a direct threat to everyone's freedom and even their cooperation. I'm not "catering to the right", either. What bothers me about people who worry that they are "catering to the right" when they acknowledge the kind of threat Islam is, is that it becomes about "us vs them" all over again. The "left" is so worried about the "right" gaining control that they refuse to acknowledge that any of their points are valid. In this case, the "right" is right! Islam is a threat, and I think it should be treated as such... and maybe that's something the left and right can agree on for once! We can cooperate on how best to deal with a religion who stands to destroy all that cooperation we've fought so hard to achieve!

I think people are being highly naive about Islam. I understand why they hesitate to label one religion "wrong" while they allow others to thrive, but it's because they're not thinking deeper about it. In this case, they become the Relativist who refuses to admit there can be any moral absolutes, and who are they to say what's wrong in the culture of Islam? According to Sam Harris, there can be some moral absolutes: it is wrong to marry children; it is wrong to torture POWs; it is wrong for soldiers to kill innocents... etc! And I think it's imperative that we apply certain moral absolutes even to religions/cultures that claim some some sort of amnesty from responsibility. I don't think we owe any one ideology more respect than its due. If their culture is violent, repressive, and hateful... I think we should stand against it.

We can tolerate other cultures as long as those other cultures are not, themselves, intolerant of us. It really does go against cooperation and thrusts us back into a "survival of the fittest" battle.
Hi Cara,

It's a shame that U.S. citizens aren't more informed about Islam.

The liberal left has many lofty ideals and good intentions, like: multiculturalism, affirmative action, anti-discrimination, gay rights, animal rights, and even rights for illegal aliens. What these all have in common is the desire for inclusion; certainly a nice sentiment. Inclusion is a core value of liberals.

But do we have to bend over backwards for the sake of inclusion? At what point does inclusion become concession? Liberal Europe is waking up to the error of their ways. They've begun banning mosque spires and burqas. They're finding out that multiculturalism is concession, not inclusion. They've bent over backwards to include Muslims only to find they don't want to be included. They want to be excluded. Excluded from Western schools. Excluded from Western family law. Excluded from Western neighborhoods. Excluded from Western lifestyles. Instead of joining their host societies, they've segregated and isolated themselves from their hosts. When they can't separate themselves from their hosts, they expect their hosts to adapt to them (instead of the other way around). But they don't want to be excluded from Western welfare.

I hope America learns from the lessons of Europe. We need to remain pluralistic and reject multiculturalism. We should make no special concessions for Muslims. They need to integrate like everybody else. We should not allow mosques or madrasas that advocate violence in any way, shape or form.

Most of all, we should not allow any kind of subjugation of women: it's a cancer on society. It promotes unhealthy relationships that pervert society from the inside out. No home, neighborhood or society can prosper when half its population (females) is abjectly minimzed. Muslim countries are usually poor countries (unless fattened by oil). But that's not the reason that militant Islam prospers. The real reason is that Islamic subjugation of women renders Muslim men unable to respect and appreciate women. The ranks of Jihadis are populated by sexually frustrated young men who have no hope of a loving home life.

An objective moral standard would embarrass all of us: some more than others. But Muslim men, as a whole, will be shown to be the most insecure on the face of the planet. Their insecurity stems from the subjugation of their women. And the subjugation of their women stems from Muhammad and the Quran.
I doubt they masturbate (frequently) if they're told they'll go to Hell for it, and this is exactly what Christians tell their adolescent boys. I've known many Christian guys that have been very damaged by that message, and I'm positive that same message permeates Islam teachings as well. Don't kid yourself into thinking it's as easy as a quick jerk-off to put these angry and, yes, sexually repressed men at ease.

What does the fact that it's only been recently that women have been given equality have to do with anything? The fact is, it should have always been that way. Yes, many women are still treated as second-class citizens... and there are people who are working hard to make that a thing of the shameful past. The "hypocrisy" of the issue is a moot point. You're making the Appeal to Motive fallacy where a premise is dismissed, by calling into question the motives of its proposer. It doesn't matter that the United States is guilty of suppressing its own women. The bottom line is that women should not be oppressed and it is both proper and good to stamp that oppression out.

I would agree that what people do in their own country is largely none of our business... until they start trying to bring their bass-akwards ideologies across their borders and into countries who have progressed past them or are still attempting to.

I never said that Muslim individuals cannot peacefully coexist in other societies; I never said I didn't like them on a personal level. They have a right to freedom; they have a right to maintain their customs and continue practicing their religion. But, whatever of their doctrines contradicts our Constitution, our human rights mandates or poses a security issue... they need to leave at home (as in their literal homes, not their country). They don't get to impose on us their beliefs or customs any more than we want Christians to.
Damn! Larry's post was deleted. I hate that!!

M O D E R A T O R S :

Please leave negative posts alone. Trust your members to respond appropriately. A bad example is still an example we can learn from.

Oops . . . it occurs to me that it might have been LARRY, instead of the moderators, who deleted his post. If so, my apologies, moderators.


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