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2007-09-07 ó 9:40 a.m.

The Source of Morality Part 1

So hereís the deal:

A long, long time ago when I was in the Navy, I was in a band with a guy named Bill. Heís a real nice guy, has a great mind, a great voice, and we had a lot of fun playing music together. I left the military in 1992 and pretty much lost touch with Bill after that. Well a few months ago, Bill was doing a Google search that had something about Ďbad directionsí in it, and he happened across my bandís website,

For obvious reasons, my name and photos of me are on the website, and Bill was aghast at this stroke of dumb Ďluckí at finding me by sheer accident. So cruising around the band website, he found a link to this blog and started reading things that I had written, notably a scientific/philosophical conversation that I had with an acquaintance of mine named Tom. The more he read in my blog, the more he imagined that it might be fun/interesting to he and I, as well as to you, my friends and avid readers (all 3 of you, you know who you are), to have written conversations about semi-controversial topics and post them in here for you to read, absorb, and comment on.

What would inspire this and why would you be interested? Hereís the situation. Iím an atheist. Right or wrong, good or bad, it is what it is. Itís one of those things that was sort of a rubber band for me. I reached out to the church, to Jesus, many times in my life searching for truth, justice, and the American way. Oops, sorry - wrong superhero. No seriously, I tried to be religious, wanted to even, but the more of myself I poured into it, the emptier I felt. The questions were just never answered for me. So I snapped back away from the church with my fingers burned. But thatís just me.

My friend Bill is very well educated. He had secular upbringing, was taught evolution in school, is one of those rare individuals that has actually read Darwinís The Origin of Species, many of Carl Saganís books, including Pale Blue Dot, which is a favorite of mine, and countless other science books and yes, even the Bible. So what? So Bill is a deeply religious man who is devoted to Jesus and his church. Everything he has learned has brought his back to the church. We are exactly opposite in this way.

Whatís so special about Bill is that he has challenged his faith; put it to the test. Heís not afraid to talk about controversial topics like many Ďfaithfulí people are, because his faith is not blind. And really if your faith canít stand up to a bit of turmoil, if you canít defend your faith, is it really yours or someone elseís opinion that youíve simply adopted?

Alright then, here we go. Bill asked me if Iíd be willing to discuss various topics with him, which I agreed to with alacrity since Bill is such a pleasure to discuss things with. Our first topic is the source of Morality, which will be posted here in two parts, since itís a bit long. Bill wrote first, then I wrote a counter point.

Part 2 will include his rebuttal, my closing discussion, and his final comments. Enjoy and please do comment!

Billís Essay:

I guess the place to start in regards to the subject of ďThe Source of MoralityĒ would be the very definition of the word itself. The word ďmoralityĒ is defined by Wikipedia as ďThe concept of human behavior which pertains to matters of right and wrong.Ē The definition seems to be straight forward but what it is and where it comes from has been the subject of much debate. The word ďconceptĒ is just that, a concept, and it basically means that there is no empirical or scientific proof of its origin; meaning that you canít put a drop of this and a drop of that in a test tube, mix it all together and come up with morality. But I do believe there is some evidence that exists that may help shed some light on what morality is at its core and where it comes from. This evidence presents itself on a daily basis and I think that if we look a little deeper into our own actions and expectations of others we will discover some interesting facts about morality and its source.

Often times we hear people arguing with each other and saying things such as ďHow would you like it if I did that to you?Ē or ďHey! I was next in line. Wait your turn.Ē Everyone has said these sorts of things, adults as well as children. The interesting thing about these types of statements is the reason for saying them in the first place. Is the person who says such things saying them because he happens not to prefer the other personís behavior? Or is he appealing to some standard of decent behavior that he expects the other person to know about. Most of the time when someone says these things to us we are quick to make an excuse as to why we did the thing we are accused of or why we butted in line. It would seem that both parties to the argument are thinking about some kind of law or rule of fair play that has been broken. Call it Rule of Fair Play, Morality, The Law of Right and Wrong or whatever you wish. It would seem in these cases there is a definite agreement between the people involved as to what fair play (or right and wrong) really is. In fact, quarrelling means trying to show the other person is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in doing that unless both parties had already agreed on it; just as it would make no sense calling a foul on a football player unless there was an agreement on the rules of football.

Now, this Law of Right and Wrong is also referred to as The Law of Human Nature because it is assumed that everyone knows it by nature and does not need to be taught it. Of course you may find some odd people who donít seem to know it but if you take the human race as a whole it appears that decent behavior is known, in some degree, by all people. If this wasnít true then there would be no sense in condemning the actions of someone like Adolph Hitler or even the Rwandan Hutus when they slaughtered 800,000 Tutsi civilians. In other words, what right do we have to say that the Nazis or the Hutus were in the wrong unless Right and Wrong are real things that the Nazis and Hutus ought to know as well as most of the human race? If there was no standard of Right and Wrong, then how can we blame them for their actions?

I am aware some people say that The Law of Right and Wrong is unsound because different civilizations have different moralities. I donít believe this is true. There have been differences in their moralities but nothing that would amount to a total difference. If you look at the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, Hindus or any of the others you will see just how alike their moralities really are to each other and our own. Take Selfishness for example. Civilizations throughout history have differed on who you should be unselfish to Ė whether it was only your own family, or your countrymen or so on. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired in any group of people. Men have differed as to whether you can have one wife or five. But they have always agreed that you shouldnít simply have any woman you liked. See, there are levels of selfishness and greed that are unacceptable in all civilizations. No matter where you go, things like selfishness and greed are not something to be proud of.

Once I realized that there is a Law of Right and Wrong I noticed one problem; the problem is that sometime this year, or this month or, more likely, this very day, I and every person I know will fail to practice the very behavior that we expect to receive from others. If there is someone out there who thinks they always conform to this code of conduct then please forgive me. They really should stop reading this. And now, I turn my attention to the ordinary people who are left.

The points I wanted to make so far are: First; that people all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way and canít really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not actually behave that way in many situations. They know the moral law and they break it. Itís as simple as that.

There are a few different ideas about the source of Moral Law. Some of these ideas seem to have merit at first glance but they start to fall apart when examined in depth:

The first of these is the idea that Moral Law is really what we call ďThe Heard InstinctĒ and that it gets developed just like all the rest of our instincts. Itís my belief that Moral Law is something altogether different than instinct. Now, we all know what it feels like to be driven by instinct whether it be motherly love, sexual instinct, instinct for food or the instinct to help someone in trouble. Instinct means that we feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. Suppose you hear a cry for help coming from someone in danger. You will probably feel two desires Ė the desire to help or the desire to stay back, away from the danger. These two desires come from instincts. The desire to help is the Heard Instinct and the desire to stay away is the instinct of Self Preservation. The interesting thing we find here is that in addition to the two instincts, there is a third thing in us that tells us to follow the instinct to help and suppress the instinct to stay away. Now, this third thing that judges between the two instincts cannot itself be either of them. The thing that encourages the instinct to help must in fact be something different than either of the two instincts. Itís like playing the piano; the sheet music that tells you which notes to play cannot itself be the notes on the piano. The Moral Law is the sheet music and our instincts are the notes. Moral Law tells us the tune we ought to play and our instincts are the keys.

The second idea is that Moral Law is a mere creation of society. Some people believe that all of the laws and codes of conduct are a mere product of thousands of years of social evolution and it is passed down by education for the benefit of all. They believe that itís just a human invention. I agree that social justice and ideas of right and wrong are passed down from parents to children. No doubt we have all been taught some form of decent behavior by our parents or teachers. But this is not broad enough to answer the question ďWhere does Moral Law originate?Ē The real question is ďWhere did society get its idea that we ought to behave decently to one another?Ē Why would most human beings throughout history feel inclined to behave in a certain way even though there might not be any consequences for misbehaving? Something inside us says ďDo the right thingĒ.

The other view, in my opinion, that seems to explain the origin of morality is the religious view. According to it, there is something behind the universe that seems to be more like a mind than anything else we know. And this ĎSomethingí is conscious, has purpose, and prefers one thing to another. Now this view has existed as long as any other view. At any place in history, when powerful thinking people come together, this view has been a prominent player in the topic of morality. If there is ĎSomethingí behind moral law then it would show itself to Man in certain ways or remain altogether unknown. The statements ĎThere is something behind ití and ĎThere is nothing behind ití are both statements that science cannot make. Science uses experimentation and observation to come to a conclusion about the outcome. Science takes a drop of this and puts it on a drop of that and records what happens. Basically, science is an outside observer. It only looks at the elements being tested. Please donít get me wrong. Science is both necessary and useful in many ways and I would hate to be without it. I, personally, am a science nut. But in the case of morality, science can offer us nothing in terms of its origin. Now, the religious view would be difficult to defend if it were not for one thing. There is one thing that we know more about than any other thing in the universe. And that one thing is Man. We donít merely observe Man, we are Man. We have what you could call Ďinside informationí. And because of that we know that Man finds himself under Moral Law and cannot, as much as he may try, get it out of his head. Also, he knows that he ought to obey it. Science canít touch that. If someone from another world did a science experiment on the human race they would never know that we had Moral Law. How could he? His observation would be based on what we did and Moral Law is about what we ought to do.

So, it comes down to this; we can say that the universe simply happens to exist, and is what it is for no reason, or we can say there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. This Power behind the universe and Moral Law, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts. It would be the reality that makes them. There is only one case we have that can give us the information we need to know about this Power. And that case is US. If we are a product of that Power, you may very well expect it to communicate to us in some fashion. Since this Power would not be one of the observable facts inside the universe, then it would stand to reason that it would show itself inside of us. It would show itself as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is exactly what we do find. In the only place we can expect to find an answer, that answer turns out to be YES. It seems to me that there is ĎSomethingí that is directing the universe. Itís telling me to do the right thing no matter how painful or inconvenient it may be. I call this ĎSomethingí by another name. I call it God. Or more specifically, Jesus Christ. But thatís another subject altogether, isnít it? Weíll save that one for another time.

Timís Reply:

Well Bill, itís true that the source of morality is a sticky (but interesting) situation to discuss. As you wrote, it has to do with the concepts of right and wrong. Sometimes this is a very broad, very ambiguous concept, and sometimes it is very specific and absolute. Or at least, it is used so for the sake of argument or persuasion.

I ask a simple (not so simple) question: who defines what is right and what is wrong? Is it wrong to kill? Some would say yes without any clarification to the statement. Let me then ask again: Is it wrong to kill a wolf so that an Inuit woman can have a fur to keep her baby warm? Itís a different question now, isnít it? Who determined that it was right for ancient humans to kill animals so that they could skin them and thereby ensure their own survival? The definition is not so easy to come by. I would say that right and wrong AS IT APPLIES TO HUMANS* is something that has evolved with us as we have learned what is best for our own survival as a species. You mentioned above that ďSome people believe that all of the laws and codes of conduct are a mere product of thousands of years of social evolution and it is passed down by education for the benefit of all. They believe that itís just a human invention.Ē

I think that this is close to the mark, but not so much that itís an invention. As humans were evolving and learned to live in groups, extended families, tribes, etc. Everyone learned that they had their own part to play. Every person was important to the survival of the whole after a while, because everyone started to develop their own skills. They learned how to skin animals, how to treat leather, how to treat wounds, make weapons, make bread, fire, store food, communicate, cultivate crops, build homes, etc. Eventually even make things out of metal. But not everyone knew how to do everything else.

At this point, there was really no reason for one tribesman to kill another within the tribe, and I think this was understood because if one of them were killed, say the guy who knew how to thatch the huts, thatís something that could threaten the survival of all of them. Now Iím sure there were neighboring tribes who knew this too, and would try to kill the more important members of the tribe or whatever.

The point is, in a small community, when one person is removed, it affects everyone, and I donít think thatís something that ever really went away from us. I think it predates any religion, because I think it predates any form of language. Itís a simple matter of survival. We cannot survive alone. Yes there were squabbles, yes this guy wanted that girl, etc, and this is also where the biologics came in; where the alpha males established the pecking order and the stronger genes flourished. Donít think I was going to argue this sociologically only. Itís just that since morality is more of an esoteric topic, it lends itself to more of a behavioral rather than genetic discussion for the most part. Iím not saying that there isnít a genetic motivator; Iím just not going to discuss it right now. End of disclaimer.

I think there is something to the herd behavior that would be relevant to mention at this point also when it came to the moral upbringing of the tribe. When everyone was doing their part; when everyone was contributing, when there was a healthy growth of the population, children learned by following the examples of their elders and the other villagers. Furthermore, since they were ostensibly raised by the village, there were not the egregious mistakes and prejudices that are passed down from generation to generation like we see today.

(* I say as it applies to humans because we have a double standard when it comes to morals and ethics. We always have, we always will, itís just an accepted part of the Human condition. Weíre more important than anything else on the planet. Donít believe me? Hereís an example: Itís OK for us to go fishing, catch a shark and kill it. If a shark attacks a swimmer at a beach though, we will hunt it down and kill it. Fact.)

With civilization came a breakdown of morality from the ďnaturalĒ morality that existed previously. I have to disagree with you that older civilizations had the same moralities that we share today. The Roman rulers believed that they had the gods on their sides. Hell, many believed that they were gods, and did not, at least overtly, feel any guilt at doing whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Some cared about their country and people, itís true, but they were the divine and the noble, and through the luck of birthright, were privileged not poor. The poor have been lesser creatures since the advent of civilization. Now to you point earlier about selfishness, Iíll agree that there were some in these societies, (read here as the poor and a very, very small number of politicians) who were selfless in nature and cared more for others than for themselves. The rest believed that the world was made to serve and entertain them, be conquered, and by being conquered, serve and entertain their needs. Who would throw someone in an arena with lions today? We have boxing, not Gladiators.

I think it was probably little different in Egypt where the Jews were kept as slaves and worked building temples to other gods, donít you think? I know you remember all of those stories about Moses. This does not demonstrate to me an abiding moral fiber, even in the deeply religious society that Egypt was.

For the remainder of my reply, Iím going to stick with what I consider the main Ďheavy hittingí moral issues. I noticed you mentioned fairness, cutting in line, etc, and I donít want to you to think that Iím ignoring that. Iím not really going to talk about these because I donít believe that consideration and morality are on the same level. Assholes are assholes. They are as ubiquitous as biting insects and often just as hard to ignore, but being considerate or inconsiderate can wax or wane with a personís mood. Whereas I donít believe that a moral person will suddenly become amoral or vice versa. Ebenezer Scrooge being the exception, of course.

Iím going to shift my topic a bit because one of the most important arguments Iíve heard for morality is that it comes from the bible. Now Bill, Iím not saying that this is your argument, itís just the one that Iíve heard the most. Many Christians who believe that morality comes from the bible, believe roughly that if they are not good people, if they do not follow the ways of the Lord, go to church on Sunday, confess, tithe, go on missions, or do whatever their particular sect of Christianity is supposed to do, that they will go to Hell and burn there for all eternity with Satan and his demons poking them with pitchforks.

Now these same people approach me, an atheist, and absolutely refuse to believe that I can be a good person without the fear of Hell hanging over me. They believe that there is nothing to keep me from flat out raping, pillaging, murder, and lawlessness because I have no fear of Hell. My first aghast response is: Are you fucking serious? My second is: The only thing that keeps YOU a good person is living in fear of eternal retribution? And finally, I answer: I am a good person because itís the right thing to do. Sure I could walk up and shoot someone in the face; anyone could. Why donít I? Well, because itís wrong. Am I afraid of Hellfire and damnation? No. But itís wrong. It was wrong before the bible said so.

I have a really hard time with people who use the bible as the gold standard for morality. Most Christians, most religious people in general, really, use their gospels selectively to make it say whatever they want it to say to achieve their ends. Iím sure I neednít remind you of the atrocities carried out in the name of God over the ages, but even those that were not vicious, hateful warmongers might not have been the most moral people by todayís standards.

What would you say about our founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson and the rest of their ilk. Granted, not all of them were religious, but many of them were. Good staunch Christians. Now most Christians would agree that slavery is wrong. Why? Because Humans are not property, they are people. But slavery is very much accepted in the bible. OK, it was a long time ago, weíve realized that itís wrong now, we donít do that anymore. Of course, itís only 150 years gone from this country. Thatís not very long.

Wait, did I just say the bible isÖwrong? Well, of course it is. Itís wrong about a lot of things, which is part of the reason it is read so selectively. Itís a good historical tale that has an incredible amount of wisdom for those who choose to listen and read it for what it is.

But thereís an interesting paradox in the biblical commandments isnít there? The commandments are absolute, but people are very liberal with their interpretation.

Is it wrong to steal? The bible says it is. We steal honey from bees donít we? What, you think they make that stuff for us out of the goodness of their stingers? No. The commandment is very clear on this, isnít it? Thou Shalt Not Steal. Letís not even talk about Kill.

So back to the question, where did moral law originate? Why are we more inclined to treat people better than worse? Well, I believe self-preservation is at the heart of every person. It drives us to eat, it drives us to procreate; drives us to seek shelter in a storm; drives us to run from a large beast; fight to protect what we need. These are very powerful instincts that are deep inside any animal, and we are animals, regardless of the promises of Heaven and Hell.

But what makes the moral drive so strong is the deep and primal knowledge that we cannot survive alone. We cannot procreate without mixing out genetic material with others; we cannot thrive without a large enough population to have genetic diversity, and part of us knows this. This is part of what makes other people attractive or unattractive to us. We are social creatures that NEED other people. Yes, there are those among us that are deviants, yes there are those among us that have killed, stolen, been megalomaniacal, evil, twisted, everything you can think of. But every population has its exceptions.

The bottom line is, we should be good to each other because itís the right thing to do not because we are told to be or scared of consequences if we are not. Can science prove it? Maybe, with the proper experiment, I donít know. Did it come from God? Well, I donít know since Iíve never seen God. I guess itís just something weíll just have to decide for ourselves. Peacefully.

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Want to comment? Speak up! 3 Quips to Date

Big Daddy Dave - 2007-09-09 02:39:20
I got an e-mail from Bill linking me to this blog - thanks boy. Very interesting topic, intrigueing essays on both your parts. My comments for now will be brief and generalized (I'll get into more detail when i have more time). Bill I think you gave short shrift to the most pivotal part of any type of "Law of Morality" which is the social aspect of what is right and wrong. You say there isn't science behind this and it is more instinctive. I have to disagree, there is an entire discipline that studies human interaction on many levels - Sociology. Laws of Morality may be a misnomer as Social Mores guide what is moral and right or wrong in a society. Tim points out one of the best examples of social mores in action with the example of our founding fathers owning slaves. All extremely intelligent if not great men - what they were doing was wrong, but it was socially acceptable at the time. Also, does a pedophile or serial killer really have something inside him/her that instinctively tells them right from wrong? I think not - right from wrong is something acquired or learned through experience. To the topic of religion - I think religion comforts people by providing explanations for what cannot be empirically proven. I believe people crave social interaction ( otherwise why would one of the worst punishments for prisoners be isolation for a week or two?) and I think religion provides a great conduit to further this end. A greater power has not been scientifically proven - does that mean that a greater power does not exist? Beats the hell out of me - i can only go by what I observe. Just a couple of things for you to chew on off the top of my head - i need to find some time for a more detailed response (and probably should printed out thee original comments), so fire away with any comments! Dave
Terp Fan in Virginia - 2007-09-10 14:14:00
Tim, When Bill sent this out, first reaction was that this is going to be very enlightening and interesting. Having many discussions with Bill and Dave, on this subject, you will see that they will certainly make you think. I look forward to continuous reading. With that said, here are my 2 cents. I was raised Catholic and have since chosen, after a Catholic Education, to believe my own way and I haven't stepped foot in a Catholic Church, since my daughter's baptism 2 years ago. You can say, that in the 20+ years removed from high school, it is clear that thinking back then is MUCH different than the thinking today. Our parents, I am sure, would say the same thing. Our grandparents, the same thing...And so on. Whatever the difference, I think that it all goes back to religion. How many times have you heard or were taught, "Live by the golden rule." "Do Unto others as you would want done to you" I think, that as a parent, I have found that I am doing exactly as my parents did for me growing up. I firmly believe that morality starts with the parents and what ever religion you may or not be practicing, there is a code. For Catholic's, it is the 10 Commandments. This would be the same for Hindu's, Buddist's, Jew's, etc. Even though we may think that we are not the best in practicing religion we live each day, based on how we were raised. How many times have you heard from people discussing criminals behavior, that they weren't raised properly. How many times have your parents said that they didn't want you playing with someone, because they didn't like them. I think that no matter how many books you read or teachings that you follow, ultimately you are going to decide how you are going to interpret that go from there. I think that no matter how many response's you receive from this, you are going to get a different answer each time. I think that is how socially acceptable morality interpretations evolve. Like Dave said, in the Wild West it was common for someone to take the law into their own hands and strike another human being down, because they stole a head of cattle. I think that is where you look at the statement, "An eye for an eye" has changed. Sometimes you would like to execute the statement, but things have evolved. We can all say that things were different 20 years ago and I think 20 years down the road we are going to say the same thing. The things that make us such an interesting country is the ability to think for ourselves and live the best way we know how. But bottom line for me, is that I can only teach my daughter the rights and wrongs and hope that she interprets them as I have interpreted them. Then God help me...No pun intented. This is a great idea and I look forward to other comments
Dan from Colorado - 2009-10-12 23:05:09
I stumbled upon this discussion linked from Do you realize that "Bill's" treatise is plagiarized (paraphrased?) word for word from C.S. Lewis' outstanding book "Mere Christianity"? It's a great book, I recommend it. But please give C.S. Lewis credit for doing the "heavy lifting" in the thinking department. --Dan

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