On Morality

"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will recieve the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtely is the highest pleasure on this earth." -- Charles Darwin (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin)


This file started as a letter I sent to a theist who asked me to describe where I thought morality came from if there was no god. I have changed some sentences, and added a little HTML coding, but except from that this file is basically my reply.

This essay will seek to explain what morality is not, what it is, and how it originates.

Where morality does not come from

Before I tell you where I think morality comes from, I must inform you of some pitfalls. I think that is important to show the basic problem of some other views, and to avoid any misunderstandings.

- First, proposing a god does not in the least help us in finding a good moral system. If god by his will defines morality it could change over the day, and I don't think we have ever experienced that all people wake up one day saying to themselves "Wow, yesterday I found it immoral to kill innocent infants, but today I advocate it".

Additionally, if god decides what is right/wrong it is nothing but his being all-powerful. It is him imposing morality on people, and following god's orders would be no better than to follow the orders of your best friend, or worst enemy. It would be like Jews following Hitler only to avoid being killed in the gas chambers. It might have a survival value, but it surely wouldn't be moral.

- Second, morality cannot be found in science. This issue has two implications. One is that without a god there is still no need to believe that the world lacks a meaning. Even if science is the only way to truth, it can not tell us right from wrong in a moral sense:

"Our conviction that the world is meaningless is due in part to the fact (discussed in a later paragraph) that the philosophy of meaningless lends itself very effectively to furthering the ends of political and erotic passion; in part to a genuine intellectual error -- the error of identifying the world of science, a world from which all meaning has deliberately been excluded, with ultimate reality." -- Aldous Huxley (Ends and Means, 1937, p. 267, My emphasis) See Aldous Huxley and the meaning of the world for more about Huxley's opinion on this.
The other implication is that we cannot do like e.g. Herbert Spencer and claim that "because this exists in nature it is moral". Many christians erroneously criticise the science of biological evolution by saying that it is immoral. This is not to the point since morality is not defined by science. As Huxley points out in the quote above, in the world of science all meaning has deliberately been excluded. We can never say that we are forced by nature to do something, we always have the opportunity to choose to do differently (now I enter into the philosophical discussion about free will. It is not my interest here so I will leave it, let it suffice to say that both theories for and against the existence of free will are scientifically acceptable.).

- Third, some theists (e.g. John Locke) have concluded that God has given human beings the responsibility to define morality hemselves. He found evidence for this in the Bible. If you are interested in this theory of what could be called "Theistic Humanism" you should try to read his "Two Treatises of Government". If you are interested in Locke, you should read about him at the "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/l/locke.htm

How moral rules originate

So if morality is not printed on "stone tablets", neither by god, nor science, where do our moral and ethical concerns come from? To explain this you can use both evolution and a science called "game theory". There are many interesting theories about this at http://ada.econ.ucl.ac.uk/papers.htm. Ken Binmore (see that URL) is presently writing a book about morality and political theory based on game theory.

Sociobiologists are trying to understand the origin of the human sense for morality. They are scientifically describing what biases people to prefer certain moral rules before others, and may be able to explain altruism. There is no consensus about whether human beings are altruist by nature or not. There isn't even a consencus whether we have a human nature at all. (This also enters into domains which lie out of my definition of where morals come from, but it is nevertheless an interesting subject.)

Though sociobiology can explain why we prefer some moral rules before others, it does not explain how these rules originate, and it basically suffers from the fallacy discussed above to confuse science with morality. This is why evolution is so important for us to understand morality, but cannot define it for us.

Human morality must be a human concern. There are human beings with similar needs who define common rules to maximize each others benefit; there are also conflicting needs, that have to be settled, and so we construct rules to settle them. This creation of rules for mutual benefit is what game theory explains.

So because there are human beings who can feel passion, meaning, awe et cetera we have feelings towards our fellow people. It is true that there are conflicting desires, and that certain people don't care about what other people think (this disproves the view by Kant that god has imprinted his morality in people's hearts), and so we impose our will by punishing them when they mistreat other people.

Is this a violation of their rights?

To answer this question we need to know what human rights are. If you believe, as I do, that there are no absolute, objective rules and/or rights, you must accept the truth that there are no "default rights". This means that rights are simply the freedom to do what you are allowed to do.

In a world devoid of beings with will (imagine a universe that is a machine with no life forms whatsoever, only deserts, rocks storms...) there can be no morality or any rights. How could there be any meaning in a world devoid of life?

If there was only me in the world I would define all rights, and what was right would automatically be whatever I chose to be right. I would be "god" and decide what is right or wrong. This can (unjustly to Hobbes) be called a Hobbesian right. It is the absence of rights which, in the company of other beings, leads to "every man's war against every man". NOTE: I will have to re-write this, since Hobbesian rights are a man's right to do whatever he wants in the company of others.

But whenever somebody else enters, I cannot do whatever I want any longer. I no longer define what is right/wrong, but instead I and this other being together have to work out rules to work for a common end. This is necessary in order to avoid "every man's war against every man" (game theory, again, explains how it may arise).

Remember that man (through evolution) is a social animal. We cannot live alone, but need the company, aid and support from each other. A child that is brought up without his mother will not survive (it may be a myth, but I have heard that Nero, Alexander the Great or who it was, made an experiment to try to find out man's "natural language", but that the children who were brought up without social company died). So killing everybody else will eventually lead to our own extinction as well.

Since our genes are developed (by the blind forces of evolution) to survive, they would not "gain" from extincting themselves, and so there is a driving force in us that favours coorporation and altruism. On the other hand "egoistic mutations" have a stronger survival value within the populaion, so egoism is *probably* a stronger driving force for human conduct than altruism is. (Not too long ago I thought altruism was the stronger force, but now I have slipped over to the other side.)

Anyway, a person's rights are simply what society allows him to do. In a democracy these rights do not come from authority, but are defined by human beings. There is much arguing between libertarians and utilitarians, whether the liberty to do as you please as long as you don't interfere with other's liberties should be the principle rule, or whether the maximum utility for the maximum amount of people should be it.

For myself I prefer a combination of both. Now we suddenly enter into politics, and I will only tell you that I would like to see a society with communities within the community, where different sub-groups of people can define their own laws, juridical as well as moral. The principle should be to maximize pleasure, but also to avoid paternalism and corruption. Eventually it should be up to the individual to decide what he should do, but without stepping on other people's feet. This I think is only possible in a Syndicalist type of society.

Moral rules must be flexible

Anyway, society changes and with it so does morality. By settling as absolute some kind of morality, christian or non-christian alike, there can only be stagnation. Morality, as everything else is part of an evergoing evolution process. By manifesting old laws you manifest old prejudice, ignorance and knowledge.

For every paradigm shift in science there must be an equal paradigm shift in morality. This is why I agree with Sir Julian Huxley (Aldous brother) in his essay The New Divinity that:

"Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable /.../ and its abandonment often brings a deep sence of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct some thing to take its place."

Some links on religion and morality

  1. Frederick Edwords, The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics - explains why theism cannot defend an objective absolute morality, and how a Humanistic morality may be justified
  2. Albert Einstein, Morals and Emotions - Explains why we behave morally, what Einstein consider to be a good moral conduct and why.
  3. Albert Einstein, Why socialism? - Contains a discussion on altruism and egoism
  4. Julian Huxley, The New Divinity - A good introduction to Huxley's philosophy.

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Created: March 28, 1997
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