One of the questions that atheists are often asked is how a set of morals are established without having them handed to them from ancient, desert-wandering, superstituous tribes. (There's a similar thread on Think Athiest in the forums here.)

I address this issue by first admiting that, as an atheist, I have no moral standards--I have an ethical standard instead.

The reason is that the term morals has a religious connotation to it. There's no getting around that. By trying to argue that an atheist has morals but simply arrives at them differently than a theist is not a position that can be won. Morals are derived from religion. It's simply a fact I concede.

However, because I don't give religion any weight, I replace morals with ethics, a secular standard which is superior. It's superior because an ethical standard is based on evidence of the worth of a particular behavior. It can be debated openly and changed as needed. When new evidence is obtained that tells us a particular ethical position is misguided, we should change it--we should want to change it. New evidence should be readily incorporated into one's thinking and appropriate changes should be made in response.

Try and get someone to agree that a moral standard is flexible. Fat chance.

As a bottom line, I never try to jump into the ring set up by any religion; it is nearly impossible to maneuver. The rules are rigged against reason and thinking. There are always better alternatives to what a set of myths and superstitions offer to us. Look for them.

If you don't do battle on their terms, they have no one to fight.

Views: 47

Comment by CJoe on September 23, 2009 at 9:03pm
Nix, I love your outlook. Again, this is a great post and a very valid point. Just like science is flexible and open to improvement, so are ethics. Ethics are really something based on observation of best practices and actions that are the most beneficial to all. In a lot of cases, it's situational; there's not ONE supreme right answer, and there's no ONE authority on the matter.

Thanks again for the insight!
Comment by Samia Hurst on September 23, 2009 at 9:27pm
Although I agree with you, I wouldn't concede your point. OK, although you could cut it many ways, let's say there is a real difference between morals and ethics, and let's call morals that which is not flexible. Even then, I don't think morals are derived from religion. Not even the morals of religious people. If it were, how would they pick and choose in their texts which 'moral' principles to follow and which to ignore? Plato put it very well over 2000 years ago. Either what the gods command is moral because they command it, and then we must do everything they command even if it's killing kids (his example was suing your parents, admittedly less grievious). Or else the gods command us to do stuff because it's moral, but then they cannot be the source of morality.
Religious people, if you dig a little, actually believe version 2 not version 1. Jews and Christians hardly ever stone apostates or those who work on Sundays for example. Female virginity is no longer a condition for the validity of marriage. And so on.
Also, there are things on which we actually are rather inflexible, like 'it is wrong to kill someone on a whim', and which you might then call morals. But to think that no one thought of this before religion is a stretch.
So yes, you could call that which is inflexible morals as opposed to ethics, and so the rest of your point stands. You could even say that religious people attribute their morals to religion. But as it turns out, they are wrong.
Comment by Nix Manes on September 23, 2009 at 9:57pm

Thanks for your input. I understand where you are coming from. This is sometimes a difficult thing for me to address and make clear to others.

I think that most people who put forward a moral standard do so based on some religious text. They may self-edit that text, but they still fall back on the text as the authority. They do not use the moral standard itself and being worthy on its own merits, as I think you suggest.

My main point, which may have been poorly done, is that there are two separate systems of determining right and wrong. One is based on some dogmatic religious position (morals) and one based on reason and thought (ethics). My assertion that ethics are flexible is important to the idea, but not the only point.

Morals being inflexible may just be semantics, though, depending on your point of view. You rightly assert that some things previously done based on relgious writings are no longer done, suggesting a level of flexibility. But I don't think they would ever permanently change that code. Those things are actually still there. They just don't have the political power to re-implement them. As recent exmaples, look what happned to Iran after the 1979 revolution and to Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. I would bet that an ultra conservative chrisitian group would act similarly if able to do so.

Thanks for you input. Everything I read gives me a new insight.
Comment by Reggie on September 23, 2009 at 11:15pm
My main point, which may have been poorly done, is that there are two separate systems of determining right and wrong. One is based on some dogmatic religious position (morals) and one based on reason and thought (ethics).

I'd point out a third. At the risk of using yet another Peter Singer moral dilemma (which most likely is not original to him, either), I would put forth a situation that defies reason and logic.

The story of the brother and sister who celebrate graduating college with a train ride through Europe. One night during their travels they have too much wine and physical passions over take them. They use a condom and she is on birth control and they enjoy each other for that one night. The next morning they decide to never tell anyone about their tryst and they remain close friends for the rest of their lives and never indulge in their lust again.

Was this wrong?

The interesting point is that most people would tend to say it was wrong. But why? I haven't been able to reason out why it is wrong, but I do have a visceral reaction to it's wrongness that is definitely not Bible based.

Morals = ethics to me and I'd second Doug Reardon's comment.
Comment by Doug Reardon on September 23, 2009 at 11:19pm
Toe Ma toe, ta may toe!
Comment by Reggie on September 23, 2009 at 11:26pm
Doug made me appear psychic. You didn't really need that "y" in there Doug. I smelled what you were cooking.
Comment by Doug Reardon on September 23, 2009 at 11:37pm
well, I just have this neurotic need to think that maybe I'm not being as obtuse as I seem to think I might possibly be, but then you never know how obtuse you really are cause you can't be two places at once when you're not really anywhere at all!
Comment by Nix Manes on September 23, 2009 at 11:42pm

I would say that with an ethical-based thought process, you have the luxury to debate the question. One based on morals gives you nothing to ponder--you are not even allowed to ask the question.

Whether a person's individual ethical standards call it right or wrong is not actually relevant. With a moral (religious) framework a person has no freedom to think; with an ethical (reason) framework issues must bring in reason and logic to decide.

Your example might not be unethical. Having some sort of "visceral reaction" to it is not a reason-based position. Any ethical standard would have to use reason to make that activity an unethical one.

To me morals do not equal ethics; they are not synonyms. I do understand where you are coming from, though. We have been taught for so long that there is no difference. My hope is that we will come to recognize that there is one--a big one, in fact.
Comment by Reggie on September 24, 2009 at 12:18am
I would say that with an ethical-based thought process, you have the luxury to debate the question.

I may have left something out of my example, but I do think they debated it beforehand. So, the siblings did make a thoughtful decision to some degree. But the point is that there is something besides ethics (as you define it) at play. And if we want to call it ethics or call it morals (they reference each other in dictionary definitions), there is more to the questions of right or wrong than anything we could base on reason alone. Subtracting reason (or ethics, if you like), I do not believe leaves us with something that is borne out of religion. I think that religious "morals" was borne out of that remainder. Basically, I would not concede morality to religion. They have certainly hijacked the perception that they own it, but this is another delusion they foster.

So using reason, we would say that the siblings decision was not unethical. Would we dare say it was ethical? I could see people, even myself, sitting the fence between those two seemingly similar statements. So what would we call this visceral reaction to the tale of incest? Most people have a visceral reaction to witnessing a murder. We don't need to think or reason out that it's wrong. For most people, it is intuitive. We can reason why it's wrong, but that is one that comes with both a "moral" and an "ethical" argument that would be valid in my opinion, if the moral were to equate to the visceral and the ethical to the intellectual.

@ Doug - Well, know you have me seconding your comment "before" you even made it. Now people think I can't count.
Comment by CJoe on September 24, 2009 at 12:24am
Morality is based on God's law, not on what's actually right. This is proven when it is considered moral to excommunicate a team of doctors for performing an abortion on a nine year old girl who was impregnated by her own father, who was not punished. Men frequently got off the hook for their sexual escapades in the Bible (King David, King David's son, Noah, and etc... ) and their victims are completely forgotten in the "moral" of the story, which usually has something to do with honoring God and NOT respecting human rights.

It IS moral for a woman to be submissive to her husband; the Bible says so and there are women who accept it. It is unethical, however.

Annnd, as a woman, I think it's pretty f*cked up that God didn't get Mary's consent when he impregnated her with himself. If it was such an honor, then it wouldn't have been difficult to get the ecstatic answer of "Yes I want to be the mother of God!" But, that's another issue. Whateve'...

Anyway, the point is, morals are (in a sense) derived from the Bible (or other holy books). Morals do differ from ethics because we DECIDE what we think is ethical. Morality is believed to be something you accept on authority. Abraham was considered morally righteous even though he was poised over her son with a knife, ready to kill him for God. This is UNETHICAL; however, even according to Christians today, he was merely being obedient. He passed the test of faith! He is accepted as a moral leader. But NOT an ethical leader, since most don't follow his example.


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