Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can we be moral without god?

A young man has written to the list a few times. He seems to be "atheist curious" and apparently is being influenced by religion. But rather than blindly accept what he's being told, he is sending the apologetics to us to say "What do you all think of this?"

Whenever I've replied, he's been extremely polite and expressed gratitude. And in his last correspondence, he asked a common question: If atheism offers no beliefs or guidance in life, on what grounds does an atheist tell anyone else they're behaving morally incorrectly?

Here is my reply:

This is a very involved question with a lot of angles. I’m going to include some links, and explain why I believe they are relevant. This is a question many different people in many different cultures through time have attempted to address. In the end, as with all such questions, you are going to have to process the data and try to draw the best conclusion you can based on your observations and values.

First of all, let’s start with the prior base [which he had already agreed to in a previous e-mail], that humans are demonstrably social animals. You can see we are. We live in societies all around the globe. Other social animals we observe include lions, wolves, dogs, and so onany animal that lives in a community and requires cooperation, generally, to survive. Lots of animals aren’t social, but we can see when they are; and humans clearly are.

This means we have evolved things like compassion, guilt, concern, and so on. We have all the individual survival instincts, but also instincts that cause us to care about others to some degree. People will have these to different degrees. Some will be so compassionate they won’t hurt a fly. Others will be so uncaring they will be labeled as sociopaths. Nearly all physical traits, whether they affect our minds or bodies [obviously not intended in the dualistic sense, but in context of a discussion on morality], will be spread through the population on a bell curve, where there will be a “normal” range, where most of us fall, but then extremes on either end. So, we see most people have brown eyes around the world, or cholesterol that falls in a certain range, or are within a normal weight range, or have normal intelligence, etc. And there are always people who fall within more or less “normal” ranges. This diversity is actually beneficial to us as a species, because adaptability depends on being able to move the population in different directions. The “normal” ranges for us now are simply “where we’re at” currently, but people can, for example, get to be “taller” on average than they were 200 years back.

So, we have these basic sets of normal emotional ranges that encompass our interactions with other people. But they are very basic. You can see this in domestic dogs. We are able to train dogs easily because, like us, they are highly social. So, they have some of the same emotional ranges we do when it comes to understanding “right” from “wrong” behaviors. People can easily get a dog to understand good behaviors by rewarding the dog. And likewise, we can train a dog that certain things are “wrong”—such as biting people or jumping on the sofa. If the dog “knows” it can’t jump on the sofa, it will display behaviors of submission if you catch it on the sofa. So, it may put a tail down, or whimper or slump—to show you it knows it did what you don’t want it to do. The dog is socialized, and this is why it is easy for people to train and work with dogs.

People are similar. We have basic sets of underlying feelings about cooperative interactions. Some authors talk about an underlying sense of “fairness.” You can see this at an early age. If a child possesses a thing it likes, and you grab it away, the child becomes upset. Nobody likes to have something they like taken from them. That’s a basic feeling most of us share. Also, nobody likes pain. And to a high degree, if we’re healthy and well, most of us prefer living to dying.

Now, in reality, there are societies where “fair” includes things that here in the U.S. we don’t think are fair at all. For example, in some areas of the globe, if a woman walks down the street unescorted, she might be killed, and it’s actually sometimes considered correct for people to harm or kill her for that behavior.

The question you are asking is: What do we do when we think it’s wrong to treat a woman this way—but an entire other society thinks it’s OK? How is that resolved?

But the problem is the same within a culture, as well as between cultures. Here in the US, we have disputes about whether or not many things are OK, or not OK, for people to do. There are a lot of arguments about whether drug use should be criminal or whether abortion should be legal. And you probably have seen or heard people arguing about these things.

You are absolutely correct that atheism does not resolve any of this. Atheism only means you don’t believe a god exists. So, atheism really would not be the right place to look if you wanted to know about something like “what is moral action?” For that, you’d want to consult behavioral psychology or even philosophy. You’d have to do a lot of reading and thinking to figure out what you think is right and what you think is best.

Here are some links as examples:




For myself, I tend to think that if I wouldn’t want to be treated badly, it’s best not to treat others badly. Jesus used the Golden Rule, and a man named Stephen Covey used a Platinum Rule. Jesus said it was best to treat people how you’d like to be treated. Stephen said it’s actually better to treat the other person how the other person would like to be treated, since he or she may not like the same things you do. Other societies have used other versions of this idea, with things like “don’t do things to people you wouldn’t want done to you.”

Additionally, there is a question of how much control we should have over others. If what you do doesn’t hurt me or cause social harm, should I pass laws to stop you from doing it? This is at the heart of arguments about things like gay marriage.

If you don’t believe a god is telling you what to do, that means you become responsible for trying to figure out morality on your own and for coming up with the best ideas you can about how you ought to treat others.

In the end, people make the rules for human society. And we must all ask ourselves how much we want to be involved in that. If there is a vote for gay marriage in my area, will I vote for it, against it, or do nothing? That’s what I have to decide for myself. Do I want to help them? Impede them? Or do nothing and leave it to others to decide?

And then we have the question of societies and whether or not they should interfere with one another. This is also a personal question each of us is responsible for answering. If a neighboring culture is rounding up Jews into prison camps, and torturing and killing them—do we care? Do we intervene? There is a lot of debate and heated argument over things like this. For a long time, the U.S. hesitated to become involved in WWII. Should we have done something sooner? Should we have done nothing? That’s a question each person must answer for him/herself. Do you push your legislators to get involved? Do you tell them not to get involved? Do you do nothing and leave it to others to decide?

What are your values? What do you want from life and other people? What sort of world do you want to live in? What do you feel are your obligations toward others? What is your tolerance for personal suffering, or for the suffering of others?

These aren’t easy questions. But religion tries to pretend they are.

It is very easy to say “God’s will be done…” and leave it other people to do the work in this world.

I know you did not specifically ask about the following, but I want to offer it, just as something to consider. And I hope it’s OK.

Often when Christians ask something like you just did, they mean something like this: “I get my morality from god/the Bible; but without those, where would I get morality?” I know this is not what you said specifically; but it reminds me of this question in some ways. And there is an additional dilemma here that many religious people fail to consider. Long ago a man named Euthyphro had a thought that went like this:

“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

What he is asking, is whether there is such a thing as “morality,” or if morality only means “doing whatever god says.”

The problem comes in with verses in the Bible like these:

1 Samuel 15:2-3: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."

Exodus 21: 20-21: "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Leviticus 20:13 "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

So, in the Bible, we have Old Testament passages that state clearly that god told people to go and commit genocide against their neighbors—even killing infants and animals. Then, we have two passages from the Law of God, one that describes how it’s OK to have a slave and beat the slave near to death, and another that says we should execute gay men.

Obviously today, we would never consider these acts anything less than barbaric. If a country committed genocide, they would be globally condemned. If a country sanctioned slavery, we’d condemn that as well. And in Uganda, where they actually are passing laws to execute gays, there is an outcry against that law as an atrocity.

So, the question is, is there anything really wrong with killing gays, infants, and beating people near to death?

If morality is simply “whatever god says,” that means these things aren’t actually wrong. It means that sometimes it’s right to do these things. Any Christian who says “That was the old testament” is plainly saying “I agree that sometimes it’s right. When god said it back then, it was right. I agree it should have been done.”

Unless they’re willing to say it was wrong in the Old Testament—even if god said to do it—then they’re claiming sometimes it’s OK to have slaves and beat them, kill gay people, and slaughter infants in droves.

Were these things ever OK to do to other human beings? If a person answers "yes," then they have no moral compass. They are saying any action can be moral or immoral, all it takes is for god to say “do it” to make it “right.”

If they say that actions are not moral "just because god says to do them," then the response is that these verses I just used demonstrate Yahweh tells people to do immoral things. A moral person would want to stop a person from beating another near to death as "property." A moral person would want to stop a person from slaughtering babies out of pure vindictiveness. A moral person wouldn’t ever stand by and let someone kill someone else simply because they're gay.

Usually the Christian response is that god knows better, and when god tells people to do horrible things, there is a greater good at work. We're told we can’t recognize the larger plan, because we’re just humans, and not gods. But the problem there is: If you can’t tell a good action from an evil action, then how do you know it’s good if god says to go kill babies? It sounds evil—so what makes a person accept it’s good?

And it appears to come down to this:

If god says to do something awful, should you do it?

And here is my answer:

If I can’t understand how it’s good, and it seems evil, I can’t do it. Ultimately I am responsible for my actions. And if I don’t do this action, at least I can justify to you why I didn’t do it—why I judged it was evil. But if I blindly trust an authority, even when the action appears clearly to be evil, how do I know what I’ve done really wasn’t the evil it appeared to be? How can I justify my actions in that scenario? I can’t. I can only hope the atrocity I committed wasn’t really the atrocity it seemed.

And I couldn’t live with that level of irresponsibility. I need to know what I’m doing and why if someone wants me to do something I cannot justify as moral.

Again, I hope any of this is helpful.


  1. Clear and well thought-out. This is why I love this blog. :)

  2. That was brilliant, Tracie. Well said.

  3. Had to share. Someone posted this on my FB page:

    Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all you heart, And lean not unto your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him. And He will direct your paths.”

    It was posted by an atheist, who observed the irony. But it so echoes my last point about how religion asks you to not question dictates--just do, and trust it's fine, even if it looks evil--you can't tell, so why not just do whatever you're instructed without questioning?


  4. Awesome, Tracie. I love how you pointed out how Christians try to wiggle out of the Euthyphro dilemma. "That's the Old Testament", or "We just have to trust it's all part of God's bigger plan".

    Christians say these things and then act as if they've solved the dilemma. Your post makes it abundantly clear they have done nothing of the sort.

  5. Great post, Tracie

    I'm glad to see your lapse of verbosity was only temporary ;)

    There was some talk of human social needs and I'm a little surprised that the need for authority didn't come up. It seems to me that this need is what drives religious fervor in the first place, and in a sense, it's really the heart of his question.

    After all, it's a much stronger statement to say to someone: "God (the ultimate authority figure) says what you are doing is wrong" than, "I've put some thought into this matter and I think it's wrong."

    It seems to me that many theists have this deep need for authority and religion is the perfect teat from which to suckle it.

    Personally, my authority figures have all been mere mortals. While they are indeed fallible, and have let me down on occasion; I'm well aware that this happens sometimes and don't go all to pieces when they fail me.

  6. Well said. I wish you could talk to John Shore over at the Huffington Post who drags Batman into his poorly constructed article:

    Now, what we don't know about Batman is whether or not he believes in God. We can hope that he does. Because a man who believes in a Higher Power (however he might define that) is more likely to look beyond himself for his self-affirmation than is one who doesn't. If the primary source of Batman's internal, personal affirmation is Batman, then it's a safe bet that eventually that will simply fail to be enough for him. Before long he'll want someone else to validate for him that he's a great man doing great things.

    Of course, my favorite response from the comments:

    Why shouldn't Batman believe in god? Fictional characters ought to stick together.

  7. I find that when theists insist that atheists cannot have a morality, they really are talking about Sexual Morality - where most atheists I have experience of are pretty much in the "consenting adults" implies "none of my business" response.

    This conflicts very much with the standard Christian view that they have the right to judge and condemn others for their behaviour (ostensibly to divert similar judgement on themselves).

    And then with conservative morality - how can you square the 6th commandment with the death penalty. Atheists might have different views of this - but a reasoned morality should evolve to be non-contradictory (even if it supports either viewpoint).

  8. This guy should read about Adolf Eichmann ... that book of interrogation transcripts from when they were preparing for his trial. Might give him some insight.

  9. Excredulous:

    Yes, if you say "god's morality is so far beyond ours--he's far more moral..." you've just cut your justification for assuming god is "good" off at the knees. The ONLY method I know to determine whether a thing is good or not is to evalutate it--using the only moral standards you have available.

    If the person says "we can't understand this moral command"--they're ADMITTING it looks as evil to them as to me. But they're then _somehow_ also trying to assert we should consider it "moral" rather than evil--without any method to differentiate from our human perspective.

    In the US we have a phrase: "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck..." the presumed ending to the statement is "it probably is a duck." The theist is saying, "then we should clearly assume it's an automobile."

    What?! If it looks evil to both of us on what grounds would we NOT assume it's an evil god--even if we grant the god is actually real?


    Hysterical he used Batman! I did a breakdown of Batman at this blog, and on the TV show. Batman Begins is a retelling of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Except in this version, Abraham revolts against god and saves the cities--all cititzens good and evil. The parallels are unmistakable, with Bruce Wayne basically quoting text out of Abraham's mouth occasionally, and a clear version of the "bargaining" scene where he tries to change Raz Algul's mind about his plans.


    I don't doubt that is your experience, but I will add it's not mine. The most common retort I get is "I might as well rape and murder if there is no god." It seems they think that if there was no god, we wouldn't even be able to contain our human selves even as much as a wild social animal (that seems capable of self-control without a god--as they survive through cooperation)...?

    And here's actually a more bizarre example of the sorts of "we'd all be immoral without god" quotes we've gotten; and it came through just last night. Consider this a bonus for the blog people, as it cracked me up considerably:

    "[without god] We could all go out and be billionaires because there is no reason to fear results as long as  you are not caught."

    Don't ask. It made no more sense in context than it does here!?

  10. I wanted to add something here as well. The young man who sent in the question this article is based on, saw the post and commented to me in e-mail:

    >I follow TAE blog and was pleased to see that my inquiries (which produced your answers) may help others with the same questions. Also, your description of me was very truthful and accurate. It is good to know that when you guys post something or talk about someone, you are not misrepresenting them.

    Just to share, because I think this is important to say. We do attempt to be honest in portraying people who end up on the blog.

  11. Personally, I prefer to leave the word "Moral" to the religious, since I associate it with being told what to do without explanation. "Thou Shalt Not!" and all that stuff from scriptures. A better word is Ethical, which reflects the accepted wisdom of your peers.

    If a doctor does something questionable, he may end up answering to an Ethics Committee: the Ethics are those of the profession, as decided by members of the profession i.e. they were not handed down by some "higher authority". (It might seem that way if it happened a long time ago, but Hippocrates was just a man, and he had help from other men.)

    I see no reason why this model can't be applied to all people and society as a whole - except that people need to be smart enough to understand the difference. It already happens in secular societies, where laws are promulgated by people (or their representatives). It's not perfect, but it's all we have, once you understand that so-called "absolute morals" were also written by people. The difference is that "absolute morals" are frozen, unimprovable, while ethical standards are able to change to reflect the times.

    If I get in to a discussion of this sort, I sometimes tell people "I have no morals" just to scare them, before explaining to them the difference between Morals and Ethics. There's much in the New Testament that can be read as Ethical advice, how to live as a good person in a society of people - because you want to, because you can, and not because someone tells you to. 8)

  12. Brian:

    I tend to define terms thus:

    Morality: Personal sense of right and wrong.

    Ethics: A framework constructed on "right" behaviors based on an specified value or value set.

    More': Social sense of right and wrong.

    Law: Socially enforced more's, often employing ethics.

  13. tracie - well, you might say that I don't have morals because I don't trust my "personal sense of right and wrong" to tell me what to do. If something feels "wrong" to me, there should be a reason for that beyond my personal sense. I don't expect other people to cater to my "personal sense of right and wrong".

    For example, is homosexuality "wrong"? My feelings might tell me so, but should I trust that? Is there an "ick factor"? Should I care what people do, if they aren't trying to do it to me? I look to ethics to decide how to behave, and my personal ethics tell me "leave people alone, you have no reason to be concerned".

    Your definition of "morals" might be OK, in a dictionary sense, but I think it's a bit of a cop out if calling something "moral" allows us to act without justification. These ideas and definitions don't just live in our heads, they become important once people start acting on them. I want to be clear on these issues, in my head, since they affect how I act.

  14. >tracie - well, you might say that I don't have morals because I don't trust my "personal sense of right and wrong" to tell me what to do.

    It is irrelevant if you trust it or not--you _have_ it.

    >If something feels "wrong" to me, there should be a reason for that beyond my personal sense. I don't expect other people to cater to my "personal sense of right and wrong".

    And I don't think anyone should cater to my morality either. That's why I offered "law" as a separate definition than morality.

    >For example, is homosexuality "wrong"? My feelings might tell me so, but should I trust that? Is there an "ick factor"? Should I care what people do, if they aren't trying to do it to me? I look to ethics to decide how to behave, and my personal ethics tell me "leave people alone, you have no reason to be concerned".

    Correct. But as you have a feeling, but not an actual assessment of "wrong"--I'd say it's no more a moral assessment in this case than not liking spinach.

    >Your definition of "morals" might be OK, in a dictionary sense, but I think it's a bit of a cop out if calling something "moral" allows us to act without justification.

    Where did I say that anyone should act without justification? Where did I say we should impose our morality upon others without justification? You're confusing, again "law" with "morality." Law is what we enforce. Morality is our personal sense of right and wrong. I did not ever say law and morality are the same thing...?

    >These ideas and definitions don't just live in our heads, they become important once people start acting on them.

    Once you start acting, if you try to enforce it on others, you've moved OUT OF morality, and INTO law. And that's a different discussion, since LAW is not based on morality, but on social cooperation.

    >I want to be clear on these issues, in my head, since they affect how I act.

    I want to be clear as well on these terms.

  15. Love the response Tracie - calm and coherent. :)

    Brian T - I know what you mean. As a general rule, the religious seem to define morality as something that requires a 'moral law giver'. When the conversation comes up, my first response is often to ask them to define morality.

    As a general rule, the theist will reply (sometimes after a while trying to pin them down) that the definition of morality is: 'what god wants us to do'.

    In which case, I just point out that our definitions of morality clearly differ, as I am an atheist, and that, yes by their definition of morality I am not moral. However, if I use the word 'morality', whilst not believing in god, then clearly the definition I use for it does not rely upon a god.

    Oddly, they tend to take that as a victory for their side, when all I have done is point out that the way they interpret morality excludes me by definition, and the definition I use clearly differs to theirs.

    Amusingly, when I point out that in order for them to justifiably have what they consider 'morality' they must first prove god, they often get all upset.

    Morality and god seem to be an exercise in circular logic for many theists:

    They know morality exists because god told them so. They know god exists because god is the only one who could make morality (and they know morality exists!).

  16. Long ago a man named Euthyphro

    That might need some minor correction, since it was Socrates who posed the dilemma to Euthyphro in the dialogue. Euthyphro, for all intents and purposes, is just a fictional character and Socrates perhaps just a sockpuppet of Plato as well so the dilemma should probably be attributed to Plato.

  17. >Once you start acting, if you try to enforce it on others, you've moved OUT OF morality, and INTO law. And that's a different discussion, since LAW is not based on morality, but on social cooperation.<

    Ah, yes, this is a good point. In fact, I believe the US legal system is peculiar among even western societies in that legislation, by design, has to be based on more than someone's or some group's simple moral judgment. In many societies around the world, any Tom/Dick/Harry can come along and get a personal moral judgment (such as "homosexuality is wrong") encoded into law with no other justification than simple personal homophobia.

    In our form of govt., however, you have to _justify_ any attempt to restrict the civil liberties of another person or group - it doesn't do to justify, say, special treatment for Xians by simply saying "because Xianity is the right religion". You have to show how the offense (i.e. religious tolerance) is a hindrance to the smooth running of our society, etc.

    This is the task before the radical religious right in our country and exactly the principle they're trying to overturn - i.e. so that they CAN push into law agendae based on nothing more than mere personal moral judgments without having to meet any other burdens like truth and evidence. I think it's true that laws can encode certain moral judgments, but I think that's incidental to the separate requirement that they maintain culture and society, be based in some kind of truth value and so on.

    So brian t: it may be the case that there are really two questions about homosexuality going on in your remarks:

    - is homosexuality wrong?
    - are laws restricting (or protecting) the civil liberties of homosexuals wrong?

    At least here in the US, these are two separate considerations. The latter judgment can be justified because of its potential effect on the rest of society, but the former is normally not considered legally in and of itself. So the latter can be agreed upon as "yes", even if you personally or some group judges the former as "yes" also.

    I am of course not a lawyer, but I think this is generally the case.

    And of course, my explanation here may be wrong and/or full of holes, so I'll just admit that from the outset.


  18. In response to Batman believing in God

    I get to use my geeky powers and chime in on the text.

    Evidence seems to point that Batman, while raised Episcaple, is not a believer. He has no active religion and shows no signs of defering any authority to a higher power. He believes in individual gods...as he's had to face them on occasion. Batman has explicitly denied the principle of original sin, which more or less is the nail in the coffin. Batman is at MoST an agnostic who disbelieves any god's claim of absolute morality due to the problem of evil.

    ON a related note Superman when asked if he believes in god replied "I believe in people".

  19. I have a different take on this question: Can a Buddhist be moral? I ask this because Buddhism as taught by Siddhartha did not profess a belief in a higher spiritual authority. Neither does Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism. So, are the followers of all of these religions immoral?

    Further, do people that claim claim atheists to be immoral take into consideration people that have not been exposed to the teachings of the Abrahamic religions? Would the aborigines of Australia, or the pygmies of Africa or any of civilizations, prior to contact with western civilization be considered immoral? It's not that all of those civilizations crumbled to dust but for the 10 commandments.

  20. Off topic but I finally got around to doing my "everyone draw Mohammad day" thing. Yay me. http://fc07.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2010/174/f/b/Sage_by_Ing213.jpg

  21. >I have a different take on this question: Can a Buddhist be moral? I ask this because Buddhism as taught by Siddhartha did not profess a belief in a higher spiritual authority. Neither does Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism. So, are the followers of all of these religions immoral?<

    Pardon my jumping in, but is this a rhetorical question? If not, I think Tracie's original post already addresses this and in full, relentlessly precise detail.

    From the atheist perspective, the "spiritual" (whatever that means) tradition someone may adhere to is irrelevant - we regard morality as a _human_ property, not a function of any "spiritual" nonsense they might happen to believe in.

    Now, if you were to ask a Xian or Muslim fundie, well, you know what their response would be - no, morality only flows from Christianity/Islam, so these followers of Buddhism, etc., aren't truly moral.
    And so on, with different levels of severity depending on the belief system of who you're asking (i.e. the Janes probably don't make that same value judgment, but Muslims certainly would, etc).

    >Further, do people that claim claim atheists to be immoral take into consideration people that have not been exposed to the teachings of the Abrahamic religions?<

    Again, that would depend on the people you're asking this question of. If they're your average garden-variety Xian fundy, most likely not; to them it wouldn't make any difference - you're not Xian, therefore you're not moral. Increment the level of education a bit and then the judgment might correspondingly be less severe. Same if you move to a different religion, etc.

    Atheists are probably the only ones that are truly consistent about the subject of morality. Our answer is "It's complicated and ".

    Finally, it's also worth noting that it's typically the religion that takes on the basic morality of its believer base, not the other way around. Richard Dawkins talks about this with his concept of the shifting "Zeitgeist", for example. And so on - this is a pretty well studied phenomenon these days, tho the widest contribution to this observation has generally come from atheists...


  22. Oh, now that I am working full time I barely have time to read this blog, just when you publish interesting stuff! I will get late in the debates again!

  23. Here is a good example of what I mean by morality:


    Social animals exhibit an understanding of correct and incorrect behaviors. Humans this same underlying capacity. What that morphs into in the way of social mores or laws later is NOT "morality." Morality is simply a basic capacity to learn how to interact with others in a way that considers the "other."

    So, a snake might learn to avoid a certain type of other animal--but that is not social interaction. Social animals interact in a way to ensure the group welfare. They are concerned not only with their individual welfare, but that of others as well.

    This is _morality_.

    Whether or not people use morality as the basis of law has no bearing on the fact that law is not morality--ever. It cannot be, because morality is internal, not externally imposed. So, for example, passing a law to ban drug use does nothing to stop anyone from thinking that using drugs is morally OK. If I think drug use is moral, a law passed tomorrow banning it impacts how I feel about it, how I assess it, not at all. Socially enforced behaviors are law--whether they're enacted on moral grounds or not is irrelevant. It's the enforcement that makes them "law."

    Ethics are simply a system of correct/incorrect actions based on a prior assumed goal or value. So, if I start an ethical framework with the assumption "kill as many other people as possible" as my goal, then atomic bombs are very ethical in that framework, and pistols less so, and being kind and not hurting anyone would be unethical in this framework. As Brian pointed out, many businesses have codes of ethics. However, many of the things in these codes have nothing to do with actions that are moral/immoral. For example, as a particular employee, I might be compelled to report to person X prior to reporting to person Y. If I fail to follow a prescribed practice, I may be in violation of an ethic, but it's hardy a moral problem.

    And mores are social behaviors encouraged or discouraged, but not mandated--such as holding the door open for the person behind you. It's rude not to, but you won't get arrested.

    And, to me, these four categories just about cover any interactions between two or more people.


  24. Good effort, but futile. Thousands and thousands of years of teaching that "morality comes from God" has become so deeply implanted in human consciousness that no amount of logical argument can hope to make a dent in it. The Old Testament examples won't work on most believers, either, because we also have 1,900 years of increasingly sophisticated apologetics to explain away all the bizarre and savage bits of the Bible.

  25. The questioner should do a quick google search on Euthyphro, as there's plenty who have pointed out that it is really a false dilemma.

    I don't think the question is whether atheists can be moral - of course they can, and generally are - often better than Christians! The question is whether there's a philosophical underpinning for that morality, and that's where I think it falls short. Perhaps more specifically it's a problem of philosophical naturalism, which most atheists are also - how do you overcome Hume's old problem of not being able to get an 'ought' from an 'is'?

  26. @ Findo

    I'd ammend HUme that "An "is" is not alone sufficient enough to build an ought"

  27. I would like to shine light on Genesis 3:5, "In fact, God knows that when you eat [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

    It seems that Judaism states that the original sin is deciding for yourself what is good and what is evil. Maybe that is why it is so complicated, we as humans have mucked it up. Perhaps it used to be simple, but because of free will it has become complicated beyond compare?

    On another note; To deem something evil is to compare it to something good. Must there, then, be an absolute perfect goodness, a platinum bar with a notch in it stating, "this is good"? The blog article talks about a bell curve, statistically stating that normal can be objective. But if one took Hitler's SS as a sample, the bell curve would probably land in an uncomfortable place for us, but if you remove anything to compare it to (i.e., people who are not as evil) then what the SS was involved in seems not to be evil, but normal? If there were two people left on the planet, a middle aged man and a 7 year old girl, would it still be immoral for that man to rape her? There would be no negative social consequence, in fact, were she old enough, she could become impregnated, thus extending the survival of the human race. Would that make it good? If morality were relative, then any act could be good, and any act could be called evil. That does not support evolution, or society, it's just chaos.


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