Martin Luther King Jr.

Morality is a human construct, by and for humans. If not, we'd have to get it from a natural source . . . or a supernatural one. I'm an atheist, so a supernatural source isn't a serious alternative to me. That leaves one alternative: Nature. But I can't detect the slightest whiff of morality in nature. Mother nature is red in tooth and claw. She is indifferent to violence, suffering and killing. Survival is her prime directive. So, if there is morality to be found in nature, what else could it be based on? Can the imperative of survival provide an objective moral standard for humanity?

If survival does provide an objective moral standard for humanity, "survival of the fittest" ain't it. We're not that cut-throat or indifferent to suffering. We have empathy and a sense of fairness: probably written in our genes. So how could survival serve as an objective moral standard?

I think that survival COULD serve as an objective moral standard if it's considered at all levels. By this I mean survival at the: genetic, individual, family, group, species and global levels. The idea here is that an act can be judged on its survival value at all these levels: the more value and the more levels that benefit, the more moral it could be considered.

But the problem with the survival-at-all-levels concept of morality is that it suffers the same weakness that all moral systems suffer from: subjectivity. An objective moral standard is an ideal impossible for humans to achieve because humans are not, and can't be, perfectly objective. We could try to adopt this moral standard but it's implementation is certain to fail when we interpret survival values.

So morality -- no matter where it comes from -- will always be a matter of personal beliefs, priorities and biases. Human morality is subjective because humans are subjective.

Assuming a healthy mind, where does morality come from? I think we make it out to be more complicated than it really is. We develop our morals from a combination of just two fundamental human characteristics: empathy and experience. From experience, I know what hurts me. Through empathy, I know the same things are likely to hurt you too. It's the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because empathy is informed by experience, morality matures as we do. But that doesn't mean everybody matures the same.

Morality formed before religion did. Morality is what we say it is. As humanity advances, so does our morality. The best religion can do with morality is to endorse some morals and condemn others. Historically, this has proven to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. By "writing our morals in stone" as religions are wont to do, they inevitably fall behind the times. They become antiquated. In the Bible, not even Jesus was aware how human subjugation (women and slaves) is unfair and unkind. Clearly, his morality was derived from the social milieu of his era and area. How can this be if Jesus is God? The answer is easy: it can't. Religions emerge from the social milieu of their eras and areas: they don't define or mold morals: they usurp them.

It's not a very satisfying answer for those who seek certainty but . . . there is no objective moral standard that humanity could actually implement successfully. Morality is subjective. It's an inherent property of the human condition.

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Comment by Simon Paynton on December 24, 2013 at 3:23pm

"sharing out fitness on an optimum basis" - we have to remember that these things don't usually have to be a zero-sum game: it doesn't have to be "I win, you lose". 

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 5:10pm

When I say that "a moral claim can't contradict physical reality and remain valid", one such claim that leaps to mind is the one claiming that (humans) eating meat is immoral. Humans are omnivores, not herbivores. We are physiologically adapted to eat both meat and veggies. That is a physical reality that, if so contradicted, would mean that we are immoral for our very nature. The same contradictory consequence, by the way, of Original Sin.

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 25, 2013 at 4:49am

But maybe it's immoral to deprive an animal of its freedom and life.  Maybe it's not.  Maybe it's OK if the animal is treated well and killed humanely. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 25, 2013 at 5:34am

Original Sin?  We're all flawed.  The ego is a machine for looking after us.  Sometimes it becomes too over-zealous and we allow it to take over.  If we can put it in its proper place then we can achieve the Garden of Eden. 

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 25, 2013 at 10:01am

I wonder if it was okay with God if that horse ate those apples. Were all animals created immortal or just humans? If all animals were created immortal -- and since there's no longer any immortal animals -- did all animals sin somehow and lose their immortality?

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 25, 2013 at 1:28pm

There have been reports of a ghost butterfly.  I don't know how you can tell the difference however. 


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