Monday, August 15, 2011

Morals in a purely material world?

Everything in your existence is your subjective experience of the world as it is interpreted by the inner-workings of your own brain. You are an individual. You have your own brain, inside your head which is not attached to any other brain. Thus far, there are no scientific studies indicating a mental connection between your body—your existence—and any other body or brain in the world. Although there may be similar physical, genetic and environmental similarities between humans, your brain and its physiology, is ultimately what endows you with a unique consciousness.

Everything you think is a mixture of the world around you as it interacts with the functions of your own brain. You cannot help but think of yourself most of time, because you are yourself. While we are surely reminded of our underlying selfishness and how it seems to muddy our human nature, it isn’t a grand leap to infer how it might have once acted as a vestigial survival mechanism for the individual and their subsequent progeny.

Perhaps a selfish nature helped out the survival of our ancestors during more inclement times of human history. Even though we try and delude ourselves into believing that we care more about others more than ourselves, but giving just a brief reflection upon our daily actions with an honest evaluation, we just cannot believe it. While it is true that a selfish disposition applied without discretion will certainly hinder our social influence, it does not follow that thinking and acting in ways that foster and promote the survival of the self are objectively immoral.

Can people be moral without religion? I believe people can acquire a consistent, socially tethered morality independent of their philosophical or religious stance. An individual’s moral stance seems to be influenced by how they were raised and the values the person incorporated into their life--those values which are a reflection of social dynamics. Morality is an anthropological phenomenon that is culturally transmissible. We learn “how to act” first, from our dealings with our family in early life, and as we get older, with society, at large.

As I learn more about neuroscience, it seems that the tendency to exhibit moral or immoral behavior is also a component of human genetics, a consequence of cerebral architecture and cognition. That is to say that there is evidence to support the idea that brain health, structure, and functioning, correspond to one’s outward behaviors and attitudes which in turn relates to how they behave socially.

Humans can be moral without religion and humans can be immoral with religion. This shows that morals operate independent of religious dictates and they arise independently of these as well. We often hear that moral formation is associated with religion, and while all religions do offer a few generally agreed-upon codes of conduct, they certainly do not offer a comprehensive view of morality in all its’ complex and nuanced forms. Religious texts offer few, if any answers that deal with the complicated nature of most moral situations faced by modern society. Germane, sufficient answers regarding the best actions to be taken for betterment of society can rarely, if ever, be prescribed by the use of ancient texts. For centuries, it seems, the Bible has been used on both sides of many moral debates, indicating its general lack of perspicuity. Thus, it is human beings, who, over subsequent generations through the process of trial and error--by learning more and more about the world around them--that a more complex understanding of morality was developed.

Over the millennia our species has noted both the direct and indirect consequences of human behavior. Also, as we gather more information and learn more about ourselves and other conscious creatures, we continually adjust the moral code. It is this trial and error process—deleting, adding, tweaking—the tentative moral code, that falsifies the idea that morals have a singular, objective truth source, apart from humans, themselves.

As a society, we have to make adaptations in response to societal change. Furthermore, because the past has not dealt with the novelties of technology and extensive information sharing, we must formulate new approaches for the best—and in this context, most moral—way of incorporating these into society.

What is moral then? Morality, from a very rough glimpse, is behaviors, actions and reactions that promote cooperation. Actions that do not promote cooperation or impede long-term or short-term cooperation between individuals are usually considered immoral. It seems rational to suggest that humans who cooperate readily with others will be more able to survive and thrive better in society. “When we put others first“, even if we do it in the name of our preferred religion, we unwittingly participate in group cooperation, which may be reciprocated back to us. People seem to cement good associations and thus good memories, and therefore good future actions to those who have been kind to them.

Ultimately, there are no definite absolutes of morality within the human species. Now hold on! This doesn’t by any means relegate morality to purely subjective and relativistic operation! The reason we say moral absolutism isn’t tenable is simply because human beings are not omniscient. We do not possess complete knowledge, of, for instance, the nervous systems of all creatures. We don’t always know the best course of action to take in any given situation. More likely, we have pliable absolutes that evolve and develop with the progression of society and its trial and error experiences with human behavior.

The Bible most assuredly hasn’t remained a static, objective moral source throughout history. Its interpretation(s) by human beings have adapted with the progression of society. Thus, when religionists foist their holy books as evidence of an “absolute, objective truth and moral standard“, you will notice that these “morals” are always reinterpreted to mesh with the culture that they are applied to. This proves that even “Biblical morality” is not static and changes as culture changes and humans progress and learn.

In today’s society, slavery is considered more or less “absolutely immoral”. Whether you want to split hairs and say that there have been all forms of slavery executed throughout history and that different cultures had different ways of treating their slaves, for the most part, the most powerful and advanced civilizations have come to the conclusion that owning or possessing another human being, is objectionable to social mores and the moral conscience of human beings.

In Biblical times, slavery was a part of life. The beating of slaves was condoned, provided the beating didn’t result in death (Exodus 21:20-21; RSV). Slaves were fully exploited by their masters as utilitarian tools. How is this form of slavery significantly morally superior than the slavery of African Africans by whites in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? Additionally, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America declared, “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts."

In regards to the Bible as a source of complete moral standards, I’ve heard atheists raise this probative question to theists, “Where in the Bible do you get your absolute moral truth claim to determine that slavery is wrong?” Of course, the Bible offers little if any thorough dialogue about the immorality of slavery or reasoning of God’s objection to it. By contrast, Yahweh of the Old Testament appears to condone slavery. It is only in modern times, even in these past few centuries, that civilization has determined—without the help of a so-called moral code of conduct (i.e. the Bible or the Koran) but by societal conscience and convention and its reflections of past atrocities associated with slavery that, slavery was accepted to be an immoral atrocity. Therefore, morality seems to be just as much subject to evolution as physical life forms are. As society learns more it seems to place greater emphasis on individual freedoms—human rights.

Many protestant Christians forget that their original founders (e.g. Martin Luther, John Calvin) believed that the use of birth control was immoral, according to their biblical interpretation. In the latter half of the 20th century, most Protestant Christians had abandoned this teaching, favoring a more secular view of birth control and its various methods. Again, this is another example of a moral idea, derived from scripture that has drastically changed as society—and the Christian community along with it—has progressed, favoring social conventions.
The Bible offers very few if any major moral standards that human beings couldn’t come up with on their own--simply by living in a social setting. In the Ten Commandments, Moses learned (do you think for the first time?) that killing was immoral, but oddly, coveting one’s neighbor was on that same list of horrible crimes. Rape, possession of other human beings, and child abduction don’t even make it on the list. This list seems extremely arbitrary and more likely reflected the specific societal circumstances of that particular culture. I’m sure it made sense from Moses’ cultural perspective; killing and coveting were obviously rampant.

Ironically, the Bible never says anything specific about abortion but it does however give specific orders about witches (Deuteronomy 22:18, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” Thus, Christianity proves that it has sustained itself by veering from the Biblical text in various occasions, to what serves the current population at the time.

It is not from a book where civilization derives specific moral codes. It is from society’s progression and interaction with various human behaviors that lead(s) humans to this awareness.
A useful and pertinent moral code must be dynamic and evolve in conjunction with the expansion of human knowledge and experience. As human beings become more aware and intellectually and technically equipped, ethics will become more complicated as we determine the most cooperative, socially productive way of addressing situations relating to morality. Additionally, as we learn more about the nature of free will and whether it is an intrinsic property of the brain (or doesn‘t exist after all), we will further adapt societal decisions regarding human behavior.

From a practical perspective, it only makes sense to respond to others in a fashion that we would want them to respond to us. When I am kind and compassionate to an individual who’s in pain—instead of laughing at them or causing them more pain—it is a far more socially productive response to both that individual as well as to myself. Better yet, my reputation is further bolstered. Therefore it is ungrounded to say that “God/The Bible is where all of humanity derives the un-shifting moral code.”

Ignorance, lack of foresight and an unwillingness for challenge or temporary discomfort are perhaps the greatest contributors to sociopathic and maladaptive, “sinful” behaviors. The majority of people who commit such crimes haven’t thought thoroughly about the consequences of their behavior or they are mentally unable to do so.

Living in a social setting demands a set of prescriptions—a code of conventions—for all participants who want to experience a harmonious and progressive society. Society would simply perish if such conventions were not achieved.


  1. I wanted to write a comment on this post, but it's been difficult to find a way to begin. I think you're exploring 2 or 3 different paradigms on morality. I was hoping to try to integrate these ideas by finding the right angle or putting things into some context...I dont know, it's not easy to figure out. Anyway, check this out for a great lecture on this topic:


    1. Thank you for the link! I really appreciate this kind of information. I am listening to this while I cook dinner :0)