Holy Book Morality or Anarchy...I Choose Neither.

This discussion got me thinking:

I have been having some trouble reconciling something in my mind. I do NOT think we need god(s) to keep us moral, but I DO think we need government and laws to do so. Someone once challenged me on this and said I may as well be an anarchist. I couldn't come up with a satisfactory response to explain why that was false at that moment.

Finally, this morning, it dawned on me and I realized it's really quite simple. God isn't real. Government and laws are.

I'm still churning this around in my head, but bear with my clumsily put together thoughts.

All of us, for evolutionary reasons (as Dave G outlined in the discussion), are selfish and greedy to a certain extent. Natural selection requires us to be that way so we get more resources and have more offspring. On the other hand, natural selection also allows for some altruistic and cooperative behavior. If we help someone, they help us, or it helps my social pack, and we get to have more babies! (side note: stop having so many babies!) If you rape, murder, steal, or generally become a burden to others, it is likely you will be outcast from society. This is not advantageous for the individual or the spreading of their genes. So nature and society have selected for a balance between greed and altruism. We are naturally moral creatures on the larger moral issues mentioned.

However, we need actual consequences that are palpable and real to keep us in line. We don't need an imaginary threat (god, hell, etc.). The trick is balancing everyone's freedom so no one is giving up too much, and no one taking too much. This is especially true for the finer moral points. I don't think that human nature allows for this. We need government and laws (that are real).

That's why believers don't understand how we can be moral without god and heaven and hell...it's all real to them. They can't wrap their heads around the idea that atheists are nice because nature and society have selected for it. That laws based on common sense enforce our behavior, not god. An imaginary god doesn't give us any recourse and never directly punished anyone (in a provable way). Real government and laws do give us recourse. Some may argue that there are plenty of consequences and laws in the [insert holy book here]. I would argue that people made those laws up and enforced them. It was the laws and the real human-enforced consequences that worked, even if they believed it was coming from god. Sure the threat of hell is convincing to many...but it isn't needed.

So that's where my brain is right now. Help me refine this...what are your thoughts?

Views: 18

Comment by Dave G on July 24, 2009 at 12:42pm
A good part of why we need at least some laws is due to the fact that while we have developed compassion and altruism as evolutionarily advantageous traits, they are neither uniformly present, nor uniformly applied.

A person who goes out and kills other people for profit may be kind and gentle to family. A sociopath may lack any sense of compassion or altruism whatsoever. Another person may be be extraordinarily generous to people in his neighborhood, but think nothing of stealing from people thousands of miles away.

Our compassion and altruism, from a evolutionary viewpoint, developed to benefit those other that we are related to that have a good chance of carrying similar genes to our own. Delightedly, those traits have surpassed that original purpose and also allow us to feel compassion for people we are not only unrelated to, but may well never meet.

Overt greed and dishonesty, in evolutionary terms, was discouraged by pressure from the rest of the group. If an individual stole, refused to share, attacked another, or so forth, the rest of the group would not help them in turn, shun them, or even drive them out, reducing their chance to survive and reproduce. Richard Dawkins goes into such activities and their consequences (Evolutionary stable strategies, the Prisoner's Dilemma, etc) in his book The Selfish Gene. (Fascinating stuff, too)

Now, these days, we can affect and are affected by a far larger group than just a local family sub-group or tribe. The scope is literally global. The law is the latest incarnation of the group pressure that was used to keep anti-social behavior in line. Religion used to serve this purpose, as it could keep larger groups of people in line than simple peer pressure. The punishment dealt out by religion, the effective punishment anyway, was either secular punishment with religious backing, or imaginary, with the deterrent generated within the punished's own mind.
Comment by Cat on July 24, 2009 at 12:49pm
Both of you make excellent and eloquent points.
I have noticed that even the fear of hell or god's retribution is not enough to keep the faithful on their good behavior. One only has to read the news.
Comment by Reggie on July 24, 2009 at 1:17pm
I wanted to make a point, but Dave made it for me. The he says:

Richard Dawkins goes into such activities and their consequences (Evolutionary stable strategies, the Prisoner's Dilemma, etc) in his book The Selfish Gene. (Fascinating stuff, too)

Precisely the book I was thinking of as I read this post. That also reassures me that you were not simply reading my future mind with your time traveling telepathic skills.
Comment by Reggie on July 24, 2009 at 2:32pm
I'm amused at the negative connotations associated with the word anarchist.

Maybe in the same manner that I am amused at the ballyhoo about Socialism? I don't know all the flavors of anarchism, but I strongly accept the social contract of give and take that is legitimized by government. I don't mind at all exploring the topic, though. Would you be so kind as to properly explain anarchy to us laymen and layladies? I know we could all look it up, but this may be easier and faster than reading the book and then at least we are all on the same page as to what you are talking about. Maybe a simple summary and then we can explore the finer points?
Comment by Reggie on July 24, 2009 at 3:43pm
I'll peruse the site this weekend when I get a moment's respite. Forgive me any delays in discussing it from my end!
Comment by Matthew on July 25, 2009 at 5:04pm
@ the_alias: I guess the negative connotation comes from the "Type 1" you describe. (Although, I love RATM quite a bit.) This is also the way it was used in the original conversation. Anarchy = Total Chaos. I am admittedly not well versed when it comes to the topic of anarchy, but from what I have read and heard, it almost never works. Someone always has to take a position of power to organize, then rules have to be made, then it's not anarchy anymore. Without rules or a leader, the group flails around in disagreements.

I suspect it could work in smaller groups (perhaps 40-50 or fewer individuals), but not in larger groups and certainly not in the world as a whole. I pull that 40-50 range from the idea that in indigenous tribes, they rarely got above that before fracturing due to political/familial disagreements. Each group would then go their own way. Cultures that had larger populations (usually after settling down into an agrarian lifestyles), would end up with ruling families/people/chiefs. (I think I read this in the book "Before the Dawn," but can't be sure.) With as many people as we have, there's just not enough space to exist in such small groups.

So while small scale anarchy may be workable, I suspect large scale anarchy would result in a fairly chaotic situation. Again, this is based on limited knowledge. So if you can prove me wrong with some large scale anarchy that worked out for an extended period, that would be interesting.


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