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 23, 2013 at 1:29pm

See what you think of this Atheist Exile.  I believe it answers your very valid line of reasoning.

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 23, 2013 at 1:34pm

The fact that all living beings strive for survival, is an objective fact, is it not? 

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 23, 2013 at 1:45pm

Survival, and physical health, too, are objective facts. 

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 4:39am

Hi Simon,

I checked out the link you provided. I can only reiterate that there is no objective moral standard that could possibly be successfully imposed on humanity. All such standards have inherent problems: primary among them is subjectivity . . . who decides?

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 24, 2013 at 11:54am

We don't have to "impose" a moral standard, but we can suggest one that is based on objective facts, that works.  The best we can do is describe consequences of following this course of action, or that. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 24, 2013 at 11:55am

Who decides?  The individual. 

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 12:03pm

Yeah, Simon, certain themes such as "the greater good" and "increased fitness" do factor into many opinions about morality. But, as I see it, morality is normally about value judgments, not physical realities, and as such tend to be subjective in nature.

There is, however, one objective thing you can say about any moral claim: it can't contradict physical reality and remain valid.

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 24, 2013 at 12:21pm

"value judgments, not physical realities"  - here we have the famous fact/value divide.  It has to be placed somewhere.  In my opinion, the most useful place is "increased fitness". 

I'm not a fan of "the greater good", which I understand as Kant's "the most benefit for the most people".  Rather, it should be "the most benefit for each individual". 

Physical facts are "low-level" and therefore highly universal.  Moral judgement is on a case-by-case basis and therefore highly individual, albeit based on these universal facts.  That's my opinion anyway, as are all my comments, lest it be thought that I think I know everything. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 24, 2013 at 12:22pm

"any moral claim: it can't contradict physical reality and remain valid"  - what does this mean?  Physical facts certainly can't contradict each other. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on December 24, 2013 at 2:26pm

I agree, value judgements aren't a reliable guide to right and wrong: we need a different standard.  This standard, sharing out "fitness" on an optimal basis, can be objective if we agree what "fitness" is. 

A bully may gain enjoyment from bullying, and we wouldn't call this "good".  Does the bully gain fitness as a result?  Even this is debatable.  It certainly contravenes "sharing out fitness on an optimum basis". 


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