Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Acquisition 4: Morality

People have gained comfort from the belief that an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient supernatural parental figure controlled and guided their lives ever since the first human asked "why?" They also gained a sense of control over their lives by believing that if they behave this way, they will be rewarded, if they behave that way, they will be condemned. Cosmic Justice. Heaven and hell. Karma. Morality.

But humans weren't satisfied to settle on a supernatural parent as the best way to understand the unexplained, and developed a systematic, careful study of the natural world around us. Science has come to explain, through observable, recordable, and replicable evidence, that many of the things taught in religious texts is wrong. Religions continue to lose their foothold on knowledge, and have begun to hold most tightly onto those things that have yet to be fully described.

Morality is one one of the things religions hold on to. Religious people like to hold up Hitler, Stalin and Kim jon Il as examples of what happens when religion is excluded. But how do they explain the atrocities that were visited upon people in the name of their god and religion? Their position could only make sense in the absence of those atrocities. If morality comes from religion, killing would not occur because of it! Killing in the name of god or religion makes no moral sense. Is it truly moral to believe that you are better than all other people on earth just because of what you believe? Is it moral to kill those people because they believe something different?

Religious people also claim that the old testament was written in a different time that required different rules. Why? If it is wrong to kill now, why not then? If it is wrong to own slaves now, why not then? If it is wrong to marry several wives now, why not then? If religious texts were true moral compasses, they would not change as humanity progressed. If morality is what our eternal souls are to be judged by, why would the rules of morality ever change?

Where does morality come from, then, if not religion? I don't think it is any more difficult than knowing that we are social animals. All social animals follow rules that enable them to work together and become successful as a species. The individual could not survive without the whole, and the whole must dictate rules which the individual must follow in order to be accepted as a part of that whole.

Social species depend on their members to work together and help each other in order to survive and thrive. One of my favorite examples of this is The Battle at Kruger. In this video, it appears that the buffalo are behaving as though they have morals. Maybe this feeling is more representative of the anthropomorphic fallacy, but it is compelling. At the very least it shows a group behavior that indicates these individuals have evolved to work together and protect each other in order for the species to survive.

Without religion, an individual would still be expected to behave in a way that is congruent with the wishes of the group they are a part of. If an individual becomes murderous, they will be removed from the society they are preying on. Without membership in a society that feeds and protects them, that individual would not be likely to survive, much less reproduce.

It should be a given that we should treat other people the way we want to be treated. It doesn't take any special supernatural network to show how this benefits us all. But is there more to morality being dictated by a supernatural being?

When children socialize, they understand that rules must apply in order for things to work at all. Sometimes, however, those rules are not clear cut. When two children disagree on an ambiguous rule, they often invoke an authority figure. "I'm telling!" If the rule is clear, the offending child already knows whether they're in trouble and alter their behavior accordingly. When a rule is ambiguous, the offending child might balk and give in to the other child to avoid the possibility of punishment. Invoking a higher authority is a great way to control the behavior of others. No wonder god became so instrumental to human morality!

When my neighbor asked me how I know right from wrong, I didn't know what to say to her then. The answer is, I only think I know what's right or wrong for me at the time I am making decisions.

There are things I am fairly confident I would never do because I think they are wrong - because I wouldn't want them done to me. Murder is one of those. But I cannot say for certain I would never do it. Under unusual and stressful circumstances, one might do almost anything. All I can say is that if events in my life continue to happen they way they have in the past, I will not choose to kill. And I my choice not to kill has nothing to do with eternal punishment. It has to do with knowing that I would not want to be killed as my life is precious to me. I also know I would serve a significant amount of my life in a prison, which is certainly counterproductive to living a well rounded fulfilling life. Fearing retribution from a supernatural entity doesn't even enter into it.

I always try to make the best decisions I possibly can, but sometimes those decisions are terribly wrong, and bring a great deal of discomfort to me. Just like everyone else, I have my moments. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, morality and immorality are all incredibly subjective. They change over time because people and situations change over time. Morality evolves as humanity evolves. Religion isn't even a necessary component.


  1. I also try, but as im human i get it wrong sometimes.
    An interesting discussion.
    Love your new look!

  2. Hi I love the post! I am writing a research paper on the Acquisition of Morality and the only thing I wish was different about your post was that it was something I could use as a reference! Thanks for making everything so easy to understand. This is really a hard thing to understand, while we know what morals are and how they factor into our lives, where do people get their 'set' of morals from? Is it a mixture of social and religious?

  3. I'm not sure that religion figures into morality in any constructive way. I think it is used in immoral ways to control how others behave. I see people who believe in god wag their fingers at people who have done something wrong without ever wondering what circumstances might have brought on that behavior.

    Truly moral people tend to do what is right for the common good, not what is popular at the time. Truly moral people do not act out of fear, they act out of compassion.

    Morality does not need god.

  4. I also want to say that I think it is sooooo cool that someone read this post and found something worthwile in it - worthwile enough to want to use as a reference!

    Thanks for the great comment anonymous!