I'm a college student of an unconventional age, (I'm about 9-10 years older than my classmates) and I am working on starting a freethinkers club on campus, considering there are no less than three clubs which define themselves as "Christian."

I was discussing this prospect with some of my atheist classmates when the subject of my moral compass discussions with my best friend came up.

You know the drill, I'm an atheist, so therefore I have no absolute on which to base my morality. We all get it sooner or later and we all know it is absurd.

We go through the motions of pointing out the absurdity like some sort of secret atheist handshake before this little nugget pops out of one of their young mouths, "Christians don't have a moral compass because they all base their morality on a book of fairy tales!"

I called a time-out.


This was for a number of reasons, the least of which not being that I have quite a few Xtian friends and I know that they do have a moral compass, and thankfully it really ISN'T based on the book they think they are basing it on.

Let's face it, many religiosos are Cafeterians, meaning that they pick and choose what parts of the religion they want. Back when I was all nutty for god that would have upset me but now that I am an atheist I love it.

See, deep down I think that the logical part of them is telling them that the book is ultimately bullshit. They aren't going to stone someone for adultery, they love their homosexual friends and family and most of them would never DREAM of whipping their child with a cane. 

They deny that stupid book at every corner, and it's because a moral compass actually exists outside of religion.

I have a theory (I think it's mine anyways, I may have read it and forgot and then later thought it was mine, so be gentle if you are correcting me in the comments section.)

My theory is this:
Being a good person is natural because human beings are terrible at survival outside of a group.

I mean look at us, we're slow, tender apes who give birth to offspring who have very soft skeletons during infancy. Our eyesight is shit and so is our hearing. We don't even have claws or long canines to defend ourselves with.

We do have societies though, and it's easier to form bonds with others when we aren't stoning them to death for sleeping with someone we don't want them to sleep with.

I'm not saying that morality is an evolutionary survival tactic, I'm saying that society, and the ability to develop that society comes from the ability to create a sympathetic and empathetic emotional bond with others.

We're social apes who are terrible at all the other stuff apes do, so we need more complex societies for our survival. Societies that can look at someone we may not like at all and not send them off to die in the wilderness.


Oh man I just fell asleep on my desk.

Night folks.

Views: 126

Comment by Ed on November 13, 2011 at 8:59am

The God Delusion has an entire chapter on morality and it's origin. 


I love the "Cafeterians" label BTW!

Comment by Lewal on November 13, 2011 at 9:39am

So altruism as an evolutionary imperative? Basically? Reciprocal altruism in the interest of survival of the species. Morality an obligation of and to humanity. Removal of self (ego, self-interest, greed) in the interest of others... in the interest of self.

Comment by Lewal on November 13, 2011 at 9:42am

I'm reminded of something Nathaniel Branden said in the 80's about his time with Ayn Rand:


I remember being astonished to hear her say one day, "After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis." I asked her, "You mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms — including humans — evolved from less complex life forms?" She shrugged and responded, "I'm really not prepared to say," or words to that effect. I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God's creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable."


I think it's safe to say what made her uncomfortable was the prospect of  "Science > Philosophy"

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 13, 2011 at 10:05am

Altruism towards strangers.  We all do it.  What explains it?  Richard Dawkins says, I believe, that it is caused by a "mis-firing" of our instincts for altruism towards members of our own small social group.  When we first evolved, we only ever saw people we were close to.  In the 21st century, we mix with strangers all the time.  Our 3,000,000 year-old brains just apply those close-relation altruistic instincts to everyone we meet - even though these instincts were never, biologically, intended for the benefit of strangers. 


I think there's more to it than the biologally-inappropriate mis-firing of instincts.  If I'm kind to a stranger, it's because I have experience that life can be fucking tough.  So if I see a stranger in trouble, I think "I will treat this person the way I would like to be treated.  That is how I feel when I see this person.  Also, if I treat others like that, then perhaps the world will become a more caring place and when my time of need comes, I will be more likely to receive kindness from strangers." 

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 13, 2011 at 10:11am

Which, if true, would imply that The Golden Rule is somehow biological, if not evolutionary, in origin.  I think it is possible for some behaviour, such as altruism towards strangers, not to be the direct result of evolution.  Rather, it may be the result of the social environment which human beings have always found themselves in - i.e part of the human condition. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 13, 2011 at 10:22am

The human condition presumably being determined by how we've evolved to live on planet Earth. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 13, 2011 at 10:36am

Sorry, thinking as I go.  Clarity.  Altruism towards strangers, The Golden Rule, is a result of social conditions.  Those social conditions are a result of evolutionary, biological, natural and physical conditions. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 14, 2011 at 12:15am

Altruism towards people we are not genetically related to, or people we don't have some kind of reciprocal relationship with - ie. altruism towards strangers we've never met - is a very variable thing, is it not?  Some people do it more than others.  By contrast: in general, human beings are remarkably stable and consistent in their altruism towards family members. 


Perhaps a big factor is an individual's experience.  If I myself have experienced being a stranger in trouble, then when I see someone in the same position, I know what it's like.  Then the Golden Rule swings into play automatically.  It really does seem that The Golden Rule is an innate moral instinct.  It can only be triggered, though, if I can empathise with another person's need or suffering, and this is most likely to happen if I've experienced their pain for myself already, or seen it in someone else at close hand. 


I am trying to think of some kind of logical rationale for The Golden Rule.  Just something to clearly and logically explain how it works.  Of course, we see it as self-evident; but it remains a bit mysterious, whereas other basic moral principles are clear in how they work to benefit the situation. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 14, 2011 at 12:25am

I would say that we definitely take the possible cost to ourselves into account when deciding whether to help a stranger, but we don't really count the cost of helping a family member (or other unconditionally-loved one). 

Comment by Simon Paynton on November 14, 2011 at 10:11am


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