This is basically to provide a forum for discussion about origins of morals away from my post Does religion threaten human rights? I think it is obscene to hold that abstract discussion around a post describing violation of human rights and associated restrictions of freedom of expression. It’s like observers being sidetracked into these abstract discussion while they stand around watching a women being stoned for ‘adultery’ or a person being murdered for apostasy.
So some unrehearsed and initial thoughts on the subject – what is the source of our morals?
I don’t know
I personally don’t know? I don’t think we have a full answer. That’s why we research the question. I believe anyone who pretends to have a complete explanation is fooling themselves. Attributing our moral understandings to the existence of gods is silly. Just as in any scientific exploration “God did it” provides the complete answer which isn’t an answer. It’s of no use. Worse, it’s a science stopper because it doesn’t enable the development of any hypotheses or testing against reality.
I believe we are making progress and think the findings so far are interesting. In my recent reading I have found the books Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer and The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey very useful on this subject.
Obviously a lot of our moral/ethical intuitions result from our evolutionary history. But that’s not the full answer (I think “evolutionary” arguments or speculation can often be overused).
While some of our moral attitudes are relative (history shows that), I believe some of our morality, and moral logic, is objectively based. In the same way that arithmetic is objectively based (I don’t think our logical argument that 2+2 = 4 is the result of evolution, that another human species may have evolved to believe that 2+2 = 5). So, I think a similar argument can be made for objectively based moral logic.
We don’t have personal access to a lot of our moral intuitions and feelings (just as we don’t have personal access to most of what our brain does in controlling our bodies). Yet these still influence our moral decisions.
Bible no source of morals
Theist and non-theists have, in general, the same morality and they make their moral judgements with the same raw material and in much the same way. I reject the argument that, for example, the Bible is the source of our morals. If it were we would be a lot more “inhuman” than we are. Christians, for example, select which biblical teachings to adopt as their moral lessons (thank goodness for that). They are able to do this because they have a secular moral logic and moral intuitions. Our secular conscience comes before any religious teaching on morality. In the past religion has often been a vehicle for teaching and enforcing current moral attitudes but this is largely no longer the case. Other social institutions currently fulfill that purpose.
To claim, as some theists do, that atheists have no basis for their morality is obviously silly. To express amazement that atheists can take a moral stand demonstrates a faulty understanding or world view. The obvious thing to do in this situation is to learn from that amazement, accept the empirical facts and readjust your thinking.
So lets discuss this where we don’t have to actually take a moral stand on the real issues.