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2007-09-12 —

The Source of Morality Part 2

Here is the final portion of our morality discussion. I split it into two parts for several reasons, the main one being that is a lot to commit to and I didn’t want potential readers of this very interesting topic to be dissuaded by its size. Another reason is that I wanted to give Bill a chance to add any clarifications or closing thoughts to the discussion, which he has now done, so here it is with no edits other than a few paragraph breaks added.

Enjoy and please do comment if you have anything to add agree or disagree. Your participation has always been welcome in my blog, but Bill is especially eager to get your feedback, so don’t be shy!

Bill’s Reply:

In the first part of your reply you asked the (not so simple) question “Is it wrong to kill?” This is indeed a difficult question because the word “kill” has so many uses in English language. So, you are correct when you say the definition is not so easy to come by. But let me ask this question instead, “Is it wrong to murder?” This question is less complex in that the overwhelming majority of people would say yes. In the same way it would be wrong to practice animal cruelty as well (i.e., killing or maiming for no reason). Is it wrong to kill someone or something in self defense? I would say not. Is it wrong to kill an animal for the purpose of survival?

Most people would say that the Inuit woman you mentioned would not be violating any moral code of ethics because she was acting on the instinct of motherly love. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a difference between morals and instincts. Murdering and animal cruelty have no instinctual basis where as things such as killing in self defense or killing for food are quite rooted in it. As far as “right and wrong as it applies to humans”, I would say that it ONLY applies to humans. There has never been a case that I have seen or heard of where an animal demonstrated moral ethics. The actions of an animal are based purely on instinct while human actions are based on instinct as well as moral principles.

In your reply you made the statement that:

“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.”

Well, what about the people who didn’t learn a skill that was beneficial to the tribe? What about the elderly people in the tribe who couldn’t contribute, or the maimed, or the mentally inferior? Preserving the lives of these individuals causes a drain on the resources of society and in no way enhances the survivability of the human race. Were these people simply killed in the name of social advancement? If it happened before recorded history we surely would not know it. There is no evidence to support such a premise. All I’m trying to do is look at the evidence as it presents itself. The evidence at hand would seem to suggest that there are things like compassion and kindness that often times tell us we ought to love and help these people, whether we want to or not. I don’t believe that it has anything to do with self preservation or the idea that we can’t live alone.

It seems to me that “what’s good for the tribe” or “social evolution” is unable to adequately justify giving “kindness” priority over personal well being. Or look at it another way; in our daily lives, cheating would often be more beneficial than truthfulness. On those occasions when we know we won't be caught, do we really refrain from cheating because we know, in the long run, society will be a better place because of our decision? The person who does this is an unusual person to say the least.

Ok. I think we both agree that Moral Law exists. The question now seems to be: is Moral Law a social behavior we have learned and developed through necessity, or is it something altogether different – a real concrete truth that has always existed? Some of the things we have learned are mere conventions which might have been different. For example, we learn to drive on the right side of the road, but it might just as well have been the rule to drive on the left. Other things, like mathematics, are real truths that we have been taught but did not make up. Mathematics is what it is and we could not have made it different if we liked. So, which class does Moral Law belong to? I believe it belongs to the same class as mathematics. One of the reasons I believe this is because, as I said before, even though there are differences between the moral ideas of one culture and another (one time and another), the differences are not really that great. Not nearly as great as most people imagine.

You can recognize the same theme running through them all. On the other hand, mere conventions, like the rules of the road or the clothes people wear, may differ to any extent. Another reason is this. When you think about these differences between the morality of one culture and another, do you think that the morality of one culture is ever better or truer than that of another? If no set of moral ideas were better or truer than another, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality and there would be no moral progress. Progress doesn’t just mean to change; it means to change for the better. In fact, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others. Well, ok then. The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is altogether different than either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality. You are admitting that there is such a thing as a Real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Real Right than others. Think of it this way; if your moral ideas can be better or truer then those of the ancient Romans, then there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about. To put it another way; the reason your idea of the United States can be more or less true then mine is because the United States is a real place. The USA exists, apart from what either of us thinks. In the same way - our perceptions of morality may differ, but it is a real thing none the less.

One quick note about the Roman civilization. You mentioned that many of the privileged people felt little or no guilt about doing whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted. I agree with you that many people in that civilization did terrible things to one another. But the moral theme is still intact here. That moral theme is you can’t just do anything to anybody or be selfish in any circumstance you please. Although the Roman culture and others like them were corrupt, they still had the moral basics. To illustrate my point all we need to do is think of what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a culture where we were admired for cheating or running away in battle, or where people were proud of a man for double crossing all of his friends and family. We might as well try to imagine a culture where two plus two equals five.

At this point I would like to address the part of your reply in which you said that some Christians have approached you in the past, saying that you can’t be a law-abiding, decent person without the fear of going to Hell. Tim, my first response to this is “I’m sorry!” I’m sorry that you have been told this and that it made you angry. As a Christian myself, please accept my apologies for those who have approached you, or anybody else, with hatred or a self serving agenda. Secondly, I want to point out to you that this is not what the bible teaches. It would seem to me that the people who said these things to you have not researched the matter. If I heard fellow Christians saying these things, I would refer them to this verse in the bible:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things
required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they
do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law
are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness,
and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”
(Romans 2:14-15)

Here, the apostle Paul is making reference to the fact that even though the Gentiles (non-Jews) didn’t have the laws of Moses to guide them, they still had laws written on their hearts. They had an internal guide so to speak. And this internal guide, I believe, is the Moral Law.

Toward the end of your reply you talked a good bit about the bible and Christianity. You said things like “The bible says this” and “Christians believe that”, and that the bible is read by many rather selectively. I agree with you that many people read only the bits of the bible that appeal to them and leave out the rest. That is why we don’t get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for different things can both say they are fighting for Christianity. So, I would say this – don’t judge the bible by what Christians do because people make mistakes, some big and some even bigger. Rather, judge the bible by what it says to do. Look at what the bible says and the context in which it says it. If you do this you will find the bible very solid. As far as critics are concerned, the bible is like an anvil that has worn out many hammers. It has taken a pounding and stood the test of time.

In regards to morality and the bible, the thing to understand is that the bible does not profess to teach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, has always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities – it’s quacks and crazy people who do that. In other words, people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed. The real job of moral teaching is to keep bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles that we know to be right. You said it yourself when you said “I am a good person because it’s the right thing to do”. Well, why is it the right thing to do? There is something more than instinct at work here. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Now, for some final thoughts: As far as “what Christians believe” and the doctrine of Christian theology are concerned, I have not yet gotten within a hundred miles of that. All I have gotten to so far is that there seems to be a Power behind Moral Law and it is inside each of us, urging us to do the right thing and making us feel responsible and uncomfortable when we do wrong. At this point I don’t want to go completely into Christian beliefs. That is another subject altogether and I really hope we cover it and the Atheistic viewpoint in our up coming discussions. But for now I will say this: In the end, Christianity is quite comforting but it does not begin there. If there is a Power behind the Moral Law then, as far as I know, Christianity is the only thing that offers us any kind of explanation about it. It explains how the demands of Moral Law, which we all seem unable to meet, have been met on our behalf. Christianity does not really begin to make sense until we realize that there is a Moral Law and that we have broken it and put ourselves at odds with the Power behind it.

Tim’s Reply:


You bring up some good points and, of course, there is a difference between murder and killing. There is a difference between self-defense and cruelty; there is a difference between sport and survival. I was pointing out with this example the nature of absolutes. The bees were another example. For most there is an enormous gray area, as there should be, and to make a commandment like “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is something that is all at once so absolute yet still so vague, it is absolutely impossible for ANY creature to follow.

I deliberately left my question open-ended like that when I asked: “is it wrong to kill?” because this is the one of the biggest moral issues that affects the Human species. This is one of the biggest issues in court, in religion, in the heart, in society. I didn’t bring up animal cruelty or maiming, nor did I bring up murder, since those were outside of the scope of the absolute. I don’t know anyone who would say that murder is OK (unless it’s related to war, in which case it’s justified differently – different conversation), nor do I know anyone who would torture another creature for his or her own pleasure. These people are called sociopaths in our culture.

I completely I agree with you that killing for survival or self-defense is not necessarily wrong, but even this has an enormous case-by-case gray area. Anyway, let’s call that horse dead and move on, shall we?

To your next point:

“Well, what about the people who didn’t learn a skill that was beneficial to the tribe? What about the elderly people in the tribe who couldn’t contribute, or the maimed, or the mentally inferior? Preserving the lives of these individuals causes a drain on the resources of society and in no way enhances the survivability of the human race. Were these people simply killed in the name of social advancement?”

In some cases, yes. The Suruwahá Indians in the Amazon Basin of Brazil kill infants that have birth defects, if they are of multiple births, or even if they are of an undesired gender. The cursed babies are said to have no souls and are put to death. This tribe doesn’t preserve the lives of those that would be a drain on the tribe, they kill the infants; it’s part of their culture. It still goes on today with this particular tribe, although many in the tribe feel that it’s wrong. But it’s happening, right now, and there is evidence to support such a premise.

“Ok. I think we both agree that Moral Law exists.”

Well, I agree that morality exists, but I’m not really comfortable calling it Moral Law. I know it might just be semantics, but this definition seems just a bit too…I don’t know…formal for me. Moving on:

“The question now seems to be: is Moral Law a social behavior we have learned and developed through necessity, or is it something altogether different – a real concrete truth that has always existed?”

Does it have to be one or the other? Setting it up like this seems to imply that it is either social or divine. What if it’s neither? What if it’s an artifact of nature or some genetic construct that prevents or causes changes in human behavior? What if it’s part of Earth’s gaiaology? Now I’ve never really given much credence to the Gaia Hypothesis, but saying for the sake of argument that it exists, could morality be a physical manifestation of that gaiaology forcing us to act out kindness or cruelty for the sake of the planet’s overall health? Something to ponder.

“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is altogether different than either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality.”

The moment that you say one set of morals are better than another, you are generally guilty of ethnocentrism, which is a cultural bias that pretty much everyone on the planet is, has been, or will be guilty of. I’m not sure that I could ever presume to know what Real Morality is, because my definition of it would be my definition, just as yours would be yours. I can’t really say that I know what Real Morality is. Who the hell am I? I’m just some schlub who has a couple of brain cells he can rub together and hope for a synapse. Measuring them both by a standard even is far too presumptuous, in my opinion, because there is no standard. Just because I think something is right or good or just, doesn’t mean that it is.

Let’s say for instance I see someone being mistreated. Not really beaten but maybe just shaken around a bit or yelled at. My first thought, my first visceral instinct might be a strong desire to get in the person’s face and say “Hey asshole, what’s your problem? Why do you have to treat this person that way? How do you like it?” Then start throwing down. Would this be the right thing to do?

You compared morality to mathematics, Bill, but I know how to figure out the area of a square. What’s the area of a theft?

“You are admitting that there is such a thing as a Real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Real Right than others.”

Well yes and no. What I said was I believe in morality and we should be good to each other because it’s the right thing to do.

“Think of it this way; if your moral ideas can be better or truer then those of the ancient Romans, then there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about. In the same way - our perceptions of morality may differ, but it is a real thing none the less”

I see what you’re saying here, Bill, I do, but what I can’t agree with is that my moral sense is somehow inherently better than the Romans was just because it’s different. Different doesn’t make it better just because it’s different. That’s the kind of thinking that keeps people divided. I know that’s not what you’re trying to say – probably wasn’t even a subconscious mental implication – but I think a lot of people take the moral high ground when they look at the world. Who can say that anyone’s moral ideas are ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than theirs were? I guess I’m just having a hard time with the Real Morality being concretized; I’m just not ready to do that. I only know what’s right and wrong to me, and what my own moral ‘code’ is. I can’t really throw it up and judge anyone else’s against mine; I’m not nearly so venerable as all that.

I appreciate your apology for the whackos that have thrown hellfire and damnation in my face, Bill, but you don’t have to. You’re not responsible for their insecurity in their own faith and moral fiber. I could just as easily apologize for all of the people that have said mean things to you as a religious person, but zeal works in both directions.

I think fear and intolerance are just part of the human condition, unfortunately. Some people try so very hard to be nothing more than what they already are. Some, on the other hand, try to be a little bit more.

Thanks for bringing up the golden rule. I think it’s one of the best things that’s ever been invented by the thinking, moral mankind, and it’s shown up in nearly the same form in every religion or philosophy that we have a record of (Wait – did I just make your case?) the oldest of which (that I could find) from 3200 BC was from the Hindu Hitopadesa who said "One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated." Apparently this guy was a fountain of morality and was quoted all of the time.

Anyway, I’m sorry it took so long to get this back to you. I actually wrote more than this, and much to my frustration and dismay, I had the document open through the email, and my email server lost my changes. *shakes with rage*. And of course just like Coleridge’s Xanadu, for my words were surely as good, what I wrote was lost and I could only regurgitate a small portion of them. Damn. I think the gist of it is intact, however, so I’ll just leave it as it is for now though.

Bill’s Reply:

Some final thoughts:
As far as the bible and it’s teaching of “Thou shalt not kill” is concerned, the word used for ‘kill’ in this instance is the Hebrew word ratsach which nearly always refers to intentional killing without a cause, or murder as we call it. The Hebrew language has many different words for ‘kill’. Some of the Hebrew words refer to accidental killing (nakah) and the killing of animals for food or sacrifice (shâchat). So, when the bible says Thou shalt not kill, it is saying you should not murder. It is not talking about accidentally taking a life or killing an animal for food.

The Suruwahá Indians that you mentioned are an interesting case. You said that the babies in this culture are killed because they have deformities or because they are of the wrong gender. You said “The cursed babies are said to have no souls and are put to death.” I think there is a misunderstanding here about the difference between morality and a belief of what some people think are the facts. Let me explain: A few hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Now, the reason we don’t execute people who claim to be witches today is because we don’t believe in such things. If we did – if we really thought that people had sold their souls to the devil and in return received supernatural powers and were using these powers to kill, then surely most people would agree that if anybody deserved the death penalty, it would be these individuals. There is no difference in moral principle here. The difference is simply about what is believed to be the facts. The people in old England believed that witches were real. Today, we don’t believe it. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches but there is no moral advance in not executing them when we don’t believe they actually exist. In the same way, if the Suruwahá Indians execute babies because they believe they are cursed, it would not be a moral advancement if they stopped doing it because they learned that these babies were not cursed. It would be an advance in knowledge but not an advance in morality.

As far as “ethnocentrism” is concerned, I agree that we have a tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of our own culture. And when we look closely we see moral differences that don’t sit well with us. But it seems to me that the moral theme of “Do as you would be done by” runs through all cultures, or at least to some degree it does. What we don’t see is “Do anything you want to do”.

You said “but what I can’t agree with is that my moral sense is somehow inherently better than the Romans was just because it’s different”. Well Tim, if your moral code gets closer to the theme of “Do unto others”, then I believe it is better then the Romans’ code.

Finally, in my opinion, there seems to be something above and beyond the ordinary facts of human behavior and it is quite real. It is a real law that none of us made but which we find pressing on us. And somehow we have the notion that we ought to obey it. Man ought to be unselfish and ought to be fair because, in the end, that is what moral law is all about.

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Want to comment? Speak up! 8 Quips to Date

Beleth - 2007-09-18 13:34:38
Hi, Tim and Bill - First off, I'd like to thank Tim for advertising this particular set of blog posts on a bboard he and I co-moderate. It is rare to find a conversation of this topic held at this high a caliber. I first came across Bill's main points (that everyone knows what is right and wrong, and that nobody actually does the right thing) when I read C.S. Lewis' _Mere_Christianity_ right after I graduated from college. I was in the same state of mind that I believe Tim is now - a Christian, satisfied for the most part with my belief system, but yearning to find out more from different sources than just the Bible and preachers. So I turned to scholarly types like Lewis. And he made a lot of sense. Yes, everyone knows what is right and wrong, and it's very hard to do what's right, and no other source nailed those two ideas down as well and as early as the Bible did. It just made sense that since the Bible got that part right, that it must have gotten nearly everything else right too. Over the intervening years, I've had a number of experiences that have changed my perception of that. One of the most recent involves the 6-year-old son of two good friends of mine. He's got ADHD, and has a lot of food allergies, and is awkwardly tall and strong for his age. Poor kid. Anyway, he sometimes has pretty bad temper tantrums. One day he had one in the schoolyard. I had already dropped my son off, and saw my friend and her son having an argument about going to school. He started running away from her, and she wasn't in a condition to run after him and catch him, so I did. I caught up to him (long strides still beat 6-year-old energy levels) and reached out for his arm. I miscalculated and we both went tumbling to the concrete. We were both fine, but his first reaction was to glare at me and say: "YOU BULLY!" While it's true that both he and I had a sense of what was right and what was wrong, we both had wildly *different* concepts of what constituted the right action and the wrong action. Over time, he will come to realize that what I did was actually the right thing to do, and what he did was the wrong thing to do, even though he had it backwards at the time. Which means that, societally speaking, right behavior and wrong behavior is learned, not instinctual. But is the concept of right and wrong learned or instinctual? I think the evidence is that that it is learned. Infants don't know right from wrong. They need to be taught in a way that is entirely different from how they know how to breathe or suck, which *are* instinctual. If you put three hungry toddlers in a room with only two bottles, I seriously doubt they'd share. They would try to take the bottles away from each other, but that's not sharing. As far as the Moral Law being multicultural, it's important to remember that all cultures sprang from the same prehistoric stock back in Mesopotamia however many years ago. Whatever societal codes of conduct they figured out there have been passed on, from parents to children, ever since. I disagree that the origins of Moral Law are beyond the scope of science. If it can be observed, it can me measured and tested. For each human, there is a time where humans exhibit no sign of comprehending Moral Law (infancy) and a later time where they do. We can therefore observe the origins of Moral Law, and we can therefore put it to the test. Now, just because I no longer believe that the only possible source of Moral Law is an omnipresent judge like the God of the New Testament doesn't mean that I don't think that the concept of such a Judge is a bad thing. Indeed, I think it's a good thing. I think that that concept has served humanity well over the years; it was probably what got those Mesopotamians to work together. In fact, it continues to be a good thing. To this day, there are people who say "if God doesn't exist, why aren't you out murdering and raping everyone?" And to them I say "if a belief in God is the only thing that keeps you from murdering and raping people, then by all means continue to believe in God. I personally am not out murdering and raping people for the same reasons I am not a professional septic tank cleaner: I find the prospect repugnant, and there are things I'd much rather do." But just because the *concept* of an Omnipresent Judge has brought benefits to humanity doesn't mean that there really *is* an Omnipresent Judge.
Bill - 2007-09-22 10:24:09
Beleth, Thank you for responding. Tim and I have both put a lot of time into making this interesting and enlightening to read. Thanks for expressing your opinions and the evidence which led you to them. That’s what this discussion is all about. Unlike you, I never did much in college and never even came close to graduating. I am not well educated that way. Sometimes I wish I had continued my education because in the words of John Prine (one of my favorite songwriters): It’s clear as a bell I should have gone to school I’d be wise as an owl Instead of stubborn as a mule I remember the first time I really took a hard look at morality and its implications in my life. It was when a friend of mine and I were talking about being good people and why it was important. He asked me if I thought I was a good person and I, of course, said “yes”. He then asked me “To whom are you comparing yourself to?” He went on to say that when compared to some of our neighbors we don’t seem so bad and when compared to others we might even seem exceptional. But when compared to Christ we fail to meet the mark. His comments encouraged me to take a deeper look at myself and why I was not the person I thought I was or knew I should be. This deeper look at myself and my actions led to the realization that I expected decent behavior from others but did not always practice this philosophy myself. I wasn’t even close to doing it. This did not sit well with me because I felt hypocritical (saying one thing and doing another). So, to make a long story short, I found myself reading the bible and being completely knocked over by its truth. It spoke to me in ways I never thought possible. The bible somehow seemed to be alive, unlike anything else I had ever read, before or since. Next I started reading authors like C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, Josh McDowell, G.K. Chesterton and so on. They just seemed to confirm many of the things I had been feeling and their books, to this day, sit on my coffee table for reference. It’s kind of like the bible is the food that sustains me and the other books are the salt that gives the meal a little extra flavor. I don’t need the salt and too much of it will obscure the true flavor, but I, personally, like just a dash of it. Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to your comments on our future discussions. God Bless.
Mike - 2007-09-22 14:35:52
Thank you in advance for allowing me to comment on your discourse. While I am not a highly educated man nor a deep thinker such as yourselves, and after reading through the conversation a couple of times there are a few things that come to mind. I notice that there is a common thread among both Tim and Bill as well as all who have commented otherwise. There is a continuous use of words like; I think, I believe, some people believe, some have said, and so on. This leads me to conclude in no uncertain terms, that there must be, among all mankind everywhere, a measure of faith in the matter of “morality”. Especially when you consider that there is no exact scientific measurement of “morality” or it’s source thereof. No not even sociological studies can measure it as Dave suggests, after all how many times have we been told that such and such scientific study has proven something and then low and behold years later another study proves otherwise. (No Dave I’m not picking on you) Therefore, without getting too deep and prancing off into the theological arena, my question to all of you is: (please, there is no need to answer me nor am I looking for one.) After considering the fact, that there must be a measure of faith, concerning each of our positions on the “source of morality”, will your position stand the true test of time in the future and even beyond your days on this earth? P.S. Please excuse the sloppy English.
Ed - 2007-09-23 19:28:44
Bill, a past real estate client, and now friend and brother has asked me to chime in. We have discussed many Christian topics through the years, and have read much of the same material. The source of morality is our Creator and is deposited into His premiere creation man. He has set eternity into our hearts. He has made man in His image. The testimony of scripture is that God is Holy. A cetain adherence to law of the being. He does not sin, not because He could not, but because he would not in actual demonstration of existence. Man, however, is in a fallen state, wherein he is depraved, marred and unable to get it right. Now proving my points becomes meaningless without first establishing premise. Evil, sin and brokeness are our starting points. Biology itself seems to suggest that we are not operating on the level of our design. We use maybe 10% of our brain -what's that? Is it not obvious that we are made to be more than what we can achieve. I saw the movie "Phenomonen," the other day where John Travolta's charachter George Mally contracts brain cancer that ultimately kills him, but before doing so stimulates much of the dormant aspects of his brain. He becomes telekenetic, reads with perfect comprhension, many books a day. He becomes off-the charts brillant! He seems to think we can all get there. I would suggest that we all were, and he was only coming back to it! Christ is the 2nd Adam, the only solution for our demise. We can only reach out for this solution if we see the need for it and can bear witness to our own desperation. How can one get up if one will not acknowledge a fall?
Dan Riffell - 2007-11-18 00:28:35
First of all I want to say, “Thank you,” for posing the question and sharing your views. It’s not very often that you find honesty and truth on the internet. Except maybe on YouTube…it’s usually a sad, sad version of truth, but you get what you pay for. It is easy in discussions such as this to break down into personal attacks and arguments to gain emotional ground with the audience. I’m glad to see that you guys are able to keep it on a level that is educated and informative. I’m also glad to see that such foul language as “moral relativism, anti-realism, emotivism, absolutism, and divine command theory” haven’t been thrown into the mix yet. Not only is jargon like that elitist, it is boring as well. If you’ll permit, I’d like to hijack your thread momentarily. Hopefully my comments will serve to further this interesting discussion. In the interest of full disclosure I can be considered an agnostic so I tend to look at the issue of morality from a humanist/scientific point-of-view. So, to me, statements such as “The bible teaches…” immediately make me think, “The bible is an inanimate object and cannot teach anything. It must be read (not to mention written) and interpreted by people who (presumably) have moral values of their own.” So, in discussions about morality, I believe that although the beliefs of the people that wrote the bible have merit they must have gained those beliefs before writing the tome. It’s a bit of a cart-before-the-horse argument in my mind. I can’t engage in a discussion about the origins of morality without first stating what I believe morality is. So, what exactly is “morality”? In my mind morality refers to the concept of human ethics, which pertains to matters of right and wrong -- also referred to as good and evil. The are miles of people lined up in front of me who have had way more time on their hands to devote to the study of morality. Marx, Nietzche, Jung, Plato, Bill & Ted (be excellent to everyone) are just a few of those hopeless layabouts. The way I see it the ideas of what actions are good and what actions are evil are hopelessly entangled in the nature versus nurture argument. It seems to me that we cannot separate the moral compass instilled upon us by society and the biological traits that we have accumulated over time (or the traits that were stuffed into us when we were created out of a pile of dirt, depending on your belief set). If I were a ferrell human that managed to survive in the wilderness from infancy without any human or pack-animal contact would I believe that tax evasion, cutting in line, or watching Jerry Springer while I’m at work was morally wrong? For that matter would I even have morals? Some people might ask if I have them now, but that’s another story entirely. Societal influence on morality is undoubtedly heavily weighted. The idea of what is right and what is wrong can only be argued from the perspective of the cultural and geographical location of any individual at any point in time. It’s easy to say that human sacrifice, infanticide, spousal abuse, racism, mass marketing, and women’s basketball are morally wrong from the our perspective at this point in time and spot on the globe. However, we cannot impose our personal mores onto societies in other places and times. Is it wrong for me to slap my wife? The answer is obviously yes. Or it’s mostly yes. Well, it depends on my mood, really, but that’s getting a bit off track. Would it be wrong to deny her the right to vote, show her face in public, and walk beside me on the street? Again, it depends on my mood. Only joking of course, but you can see where I’m going with this. I look at my son as about a half-clean slate in regards to societal mores. His beliefs about what is right or wrong (although they will follow a distinct pattern of development) will be created in situ. At any rate it will be interesting to see how my son’s ideas will be influenced since the world is getting smaller and foreign traditions and values are immediately available to him through the media and worldwide connectivity. His generation will undoubtedly be screwed up, especially since they have us as parents. Just like my son, we all follow certain stages of moral development in our lives. Kohlberg tests this with his Heinz dilemma. The Heinz dilemma is stated as follows: A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a pharmacist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the pharmacist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the pharmacist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the pharmacist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not? I first heard about the Heinz dilemma from an eighth-grade girl who’s science experiment I was judging…precocious bitch. It turns out that there are six categories of moral development that answers will fall into. I don’t want to get too deep into that (unless invited), but I’m curious what you guys think of this. Since we’re on the subject of progeny it seems like a good point to look the genetic origins of morality or the nature side of this conundrum. Simply stated humans are animals. We have the same zoological traits and drives as any other animal in the world: procreation, self-preservation, fashion, and hunger. We are top predators and, as such, we are lethal adversaries and have the potential to cause great physical harm, even death, ourselves and to each other. It would not do to have us (or any other top predator) going around maiming and killing one another as adults. It can be said that sometimes in nature infanticide (lions killing the young) occurs, but this is usually for lack of resources or preservation of a specific line of genes. Also, often, young animals kill one another in the battle for resources (birds eject their siblings from the nest). However, it is rare that adults kill one another, with the exception of humans, dolphins (of all creatures), and animals in captivity. In skirmishes over territory, mates, the remote or food large predators rarely kill one another, especially in socialized animals such as wolves, lions, primates, etc. It wouldn’t make sense to remove a healthy adult that can aid in protecting, hunting, gathering, tending to the young, etc., especially since so many resources have been wasted on growing that individual into an adult. So a seeming paradox occurs in dangerous animals. We have the tools to trap, kill and consume our prey, but we have a strong genetic aversion to expending the energy to kill one another. So we socialized animals must necessarily have aversions to theft, deceit, and murder; without these aversions we would not get very far, raping and murdering each other. Since we humans are so dangerous we have even extended our vulnerability by remaining nude (hairless) throughout or lives. We need each other to survive. I guess to sum up I believe that the origins of morality along with the definition of what is right or wrong are rooted not only in our environment and upbringing, but at the same time they are bolstered by an innate genetic component. This line of thinking is very close to the anthropic principle of physics. We observe the universe that way that it is because we exist. Meaning that everything in the universe has to be how it is in order for us to even exist. A little one way or another and POOF no Judge Judy on weekdays, no Laffy Taffy, and no morality. Anyway, thanks for the interesting, informative and frank discussion, and thanks for letting me chime in. I hope that my comments will spur more thought not just hate mail.
Bill - 2007-11-21 13:32:13
Hi Dan. Thank you for your comments. You articulate your points rather well. I understand what you are saying about the phrase “The Bible teaches…” and I know that I used it a couple of times in the Morality discussion. But please don’t let that be a hindrance to my point. I am a novice writer and don’t really think of such things. Now, having said that, I do believe that the Bible is God Breathed or inspired by God. So maybe I should use the phrase “God teaches…” or “The Bible reads…” instead. Anyway, if I do use “The Bible teaches…” in future discussions you’ll know where I’m coming from. Just chalk it up to semantics. As far as society and social mores are concerned, there is no doubt that many of the rights and wrongs we agree upon today were developed and passed down by our ancestors. But the curious thing about it is that it seems like all societies throughout history have had the idea of “Do unto others” to some degree. In other words, they all have their standards of integrity to uphold. I definitely understand your point on this matter but I just see it a different way. It just seems curious to me that the overwhelming majority of people, throughout history, want to act in a way that is fair and kind. The evolution of social morality may be able to able to answer why we do some of the things we do but it does not answer, at least to my satisfaction, why we have this strong feeling of what we ought to do. Now, in regard to imposing our personal mores on other societies, I agree and disagree. Should we go around forcing other societies to allow women (or men for that matter) to vote, or deny them the right to watch Jerry Springer and things like that? No. Societies have to make those decisions for themselves and no doubt many have. On the other hand, should we step in when there are things like mass killing and genocide going on? I think we should try to stop those kinds of things. Bill Clinton was asked the question “What presidential decision do you regret the most?” He remarked that he wished he had made an effort to stop the genocide in Rwanda. As a result, 800,000 people were slaughtered. This weighs heavy on his mind to this day. The Kohlberg scenario is interesting but not very complicated. I have heard of this and I think it is used to see how people (mostly children) reach the conclusion of whether or not it is ok to steal the medicine. Would I steal it? Probably. Would I expect punishment if I did? Yes. I would hope that the jury was in an understanding mood when I went to trial but I would not expect easy treatment. As far as God is concerned, His commandment is “Thou shalt not steal”. He’s quite clear. Stealing is sin and sin is death. The 10 Commandments are absolute. No one can abide by them all. We all will break some of them eventually. See, the thing about the 10 commandments is that they only point out our sin. They merely show us how sinful we are. God is clear on the fact that we are not saved from His judgment because we try to keep the 10 Commandments. Rather, we are saved by God’s grace though Jesus Christ. If we believe in, and accept that grace, then we are saved. Not a moment sooner. Ok, moving on. Now, to your point about morality being the product of “upbringing” and an “innate genetic component”. I agree that we have the instincts you mentioned (just like animals) and that those instincts compel us to act in certain ways but that logic, at least to me, seems to fall very short when it comes to the idea of kindness, compassion and feeling that we ought to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. Moving on. The Anthropic Principle is something that I have studied a little and find very interesting. I will do some more research on it and I’m sure it will come up in our future discussions. Well, again I want to thank you for your input and I look forward hearing your comments in the future. And no, you will not get hate mail from me. That gets us nowhere. I believe in discussions, not shouting matches.
Dan Riffell - 2007-12-03 00:42:30
Sorry it took me so long to respond. I was half waiting for Tim to chime in, and the other half was all of the holiday nonsense. But I’m here now, so let’s jump in with both feet. First of all, I want to say thanks again for letting me hijack your thread. This is an excellent topic. Secondly, let me just throw it out there that I understand that religion has formative aspects when speaking about morality. It is unavoidable for something that is as ingrained into society to as religion to have huge influence on daily life and human interaction. However, when it comes to morality I believe that religion and religious beliefs are factors in what can be termed cultural evolution. I will get back to that in a moment. While we are on the topic of religion, I want to take a brief look at the ten commandments. On inspection it seems that they essentially fall into two categories. I’ll call them religious commandments and non-religious commandments. The first four commandments are the religious commandments (no other gods, no idolatry, don’t take the lords name in vain, and rest on the Sabbath). The last six can be considered essentially non-religious (honor mom and pop, don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie or covet). It seems like the first group are there to present an authority figure and compete for ground with other religions – marketing and indoctrination. They essentially say I’m the man, and if you don’t follow my rules I’ll put a pox on your family for four generations. Oh, by the way, you get Sundays off. It’s interesting that these are the first of the commandments. I would think that killing and stealing would top the list, but I’m not big on authority figures. The last six of the commandments are what I would consider the meat of the list. These are the behaviors that affect our lives and interactions. I believe that these items are statements of boundaries that are deeply ingrained into any social animal’s psyche. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, or covet because it will upset the delicate balance that we have worked so hard for over the last 1000 generations, and honor mom and pop because you don’t want them to write you out of their will. Bill, you said that you have a hard time with believing that science can explain why we have this strong feeling of what we ought to do. Evolutionarily speaking human emotions (or, if you like, the human brain) came about more easily than the adaptations that are required for walking upright, but they are no less necessary for human societies to function properly than having erect posture. So why do we have these feelings? My belief is that they are tied to what is called “altruism.” Biological altruism is a bit of a strange beast. It can be seen in many animals besides humans. Prairie dogs, woodpeckers, primates, and bees as well as many, many others will call an alarm in the presence of a predator. Why would an animal put itself in harm’s way for the benefit of another, especially one that is not related? This is just one on a multitude of ways that species act to benefit a social group. It turns out that altruists who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of those with shared traits may have low selective value as individuals (check out, but a population bearing such altruistic individuals will have higher reproductive values than one without them. Conversely, social parasites that increase their frequency at the expense of others in a population may have high individual selective value, but they will depress the reproductive fitness of the population. Natural selection will increase altruistic genes if individuals that benefit from the unselfish acts are themselves also carrying those genes for altruism. Natural selection is often described as the survival of the fittest, which implies and in my mind would better be called the destruction of the weak. If nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, societies and social animals progress through the protection of the weak (altruism). These emotions and feelings that we are talking about are set in us in the same way that opposable thumbs and our circulatory system are – they help us survive. Now, back to cultural evolution for a bit. The information humans gather from ancestors and contemporaries can be purposefully changed to provide improved utility for themselves, their offspring, and others. The speed with which these purposeful modifications take place and the consequent speed of cultural change are limited primarily by human inventiveness. A cultural or technological improvement can now be proposed in one part of the world and implemented in another part with the speed of the communication. Genetic evolution is slow since it must await fortuitous accidental genetic changes in DNA before it can proceed, and each change may take a considerable number of generations before it can be incorporated into the population. It seems obvious that many profound social and cultural changes, such as those involved in the transition from slavery to feudalism, or from feudalism to capitalism, or from low tech to hi tech, are far too rapid to be caused by genetic changes. This disparity in speed between cultural and biological evolution indicates that they evolve on separate methodological tracks, yet the biological equipment needed to transmit and utilize cultural information (memory, perception, language, etc.) still connects them both. It is clear that, since they can be consciously selected, social goals can be directed towards almost any objective that humans choose for themselves, such as wealth, poverty, chastity, obedience, revolution, and so on. So when we talk about the origins of morality it seems, to me at least, that our biology sets the framework, and we use our intellect make conscious decisions that affect the direction of societal beliefs. I guess that’s the crux of what I believe about morality summed up in one sentence. Could have saved us all a lot of time if I just said that in the beginning…Thanks again for letting me join in. I hope I’ve shed a little light on the subject anyway.
Dan - 2010-03-30 17:50:48
I just stumbled across this, and I thought it was fitting:

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