Philosophical Straw Men: There Is No Morality Without God

17 02 2009

I recently read a post that asks “Why shouldn’t I kill you?”  The gist of the argument is if actions are determined solely by the chemical interactions in one’s brain, which are in turn determined by DNA, then isn’t any action performed completely a-moral?  It isn’t right or wrong, it’s just what my DNA has me do.

Yeah, because a God that wiped out every man woman and child in a flood (excepting of course Noah) is a true moral compass.  Sorry, I digress.  It does seem to be an interesting question though doesn’t it?

Actually no, it isn’t.  Like most of these arguments it’s a stilted straw man of an argument rigged to favor the scientific ignorance of the religious masses disregarding the actual science that’s been done and the growing understanding we have.

The question assigns too much influence on a limited concept like DNA alone. The reality of the mechanisms that promote survival of certain genes is more nuanced and complicated than the raw survival of the fittest “kill or be killed” rules typically attributed to the oversimplified concept of natural selection.

Like many other species our survival and general ascendancy has happened because of our ability to form cohesive social structures in which we can specialize our roles and work together to improve our collective existence. These abilities of course have been enhanced by the genetic natural selection that promoted a multitude of attributes like speech, empathy, and complex reasoning.  Without these genetic predispositions we would not be able to work together as a society. So while some individuals have greater or lesser ability to do these things it is our collective ability to cooperate that is essentially embedded in our genes and allowed us to flourish as a species.

Ethics and Laws (the religious can call it Morality if they wish) are simply the codification of the social contracts that have proven the best at maximizing our survival.  Some of us have more advanced “Morals” than others.  One need only look at the doctrines of stoning women in Muslim cultures or the bombing of family planning health centers to see…oh wait, that might be a bad example.  Well, I think you get the thrust of what I’m getting at anyhow.

In any case this is a very limited venue for such a weighty topic.  If you really want to understand more about the evolution of social behavior in ours and other species I would encourage you to go get “Our Inner Ape” by Frans De Waal from your local library. It’s a great read.

Super J.

You have a big brain, use it!

You have a big brain, use it!

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13 responses

17 02 2009
Chris

I would posit Morality was manifest through the Code of Hammurabi.

Before the rule of law, man had to deal with survival first and foremost. Killing or taking what wasn’t yours was an act of self-preservation. Even monogamy is a relatively recent institution.

17 02 2009
SuperJesus

Which is a good example of how morality is an ever evolving concept. As we learn more and more about what makes for successful societies (i.e. those that don’t tear themselves apart because of the vengance of jealous spouses) the more our ideas of what is moral change.

People think it’s all about survival of the fittest as in the biggest and strongest. It’s really all about survival…period. The ambiguous concept of fitness is whatever attribute works best be it individual strength or community cooperation.

17 02 2009
Personal Failure

What’s ridiculous about this “all morality comes from god” argument isn’t just that the bible is filled with people being immoral, it’s that there were dozens (if not more) of cultures in the Americas that had had no contact with Christianity/Judaism whatsoever that had the same basic rules: no lying, stealing or murdering. This is because society can’t survive without those rules and humans don’t do so well against bears and wolves and jaguars alone. Duh.

17 02 2009
Chris

re: Personal Failure

Christians would argue it was still god, even if the filthy heathens didn’t know it.
That said, I agree. Just look at the story of David, whom God thought was the best banana of the bunch.
Adam and Eve- immoral
Lot- immoral daughters
Abraham- where’s the morality in killing your son because someone told you to? And if it was God that told him to, what kinda of sick, twisted individual would play that kind of joke?
Samson- immoral
David- immoral
Jesus- well, I guess he was cool, but he hung out with whores

17 02 2009
SuperJesus

Dude! You say that like hanging out with whores is a bad thing!

18 02 2009
avtoz

Good job! I wish successes!

18 02 2009
Paen

I think that J.C. hung out with prostitutes because they were a lot more interesting than the Fundementalists of the day who were always on his case.
I also think that the Fundies of the time like now were probably the most frequent and the most perverted customers of those same prostitutes

2 03 2009
aerosola

The title of the post referred to was “Why shouldn’t I kill you,” not “Why don’t I kill you.” That’s another question entirely. The issue is that without God, evolution can — by no small stretch of the imagination — conceivably provide an explanation for how morality came about, but never an adequate reason for why we should or should not do anything.

3 03 2009
SuperJesus

Help me understand your point. So while evolution can explain how morality came about you’re suggesting that this type of evolution derived morality fails to provide reasons why we should or should not do something? Yet the unexplained and dubious “morality” from God is somehow superior because it has a “why” component?

Are you actually suggesting that “Thall shalt not kill (unless of course you plant different crops together, eat pig, or take my name in vain, or a number of other really important exceptions)…because I your Lord said so” is somehow more compelling than “Don’t kill each other because millions of generations of our species have found that it is detrimental to numerous aspects of our survival and overall social cohesion including overall happiness, productivity, concept of fairness and justice, …on and on and on… (you get the idea)”

The evolutionary explanation makes more sense and seems to be a far better and more reasonable “why” than the “because I told you so” of some invisible magic being nobody has ever seen and cannot remotely prove exists.

You should perhaps explain yourself further because your point is utterly nonsensical as it stands.

22 01 2010
OldNick

Aerosola’s point was actually quite good, since it shows that we cannot have an absolute morality, or even a strong morality. What we can do, however, is build a framework of expected actions.

If you don’t agree with me you make the mistake of deriving ‘ought’s from ‘is’s. This simple mistake is all too often the basis of bad moral philosophy. Read some David Hume, and perhaps some modern moral skepticism (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong comes to mind). What might come out of your readings is that it is indeed difficult to define an absolute morality without very strong assumptions. Maybe because absolute morality is a bit of a myth, and we expect too much from ethics. This does not mean that we have to make very strong assumptions to get ‘some’ kind of morality. Instead morality can be based on weak assumptions, which get us surprisingly far. For example while I cannot show with logical arguments that nihilism is wrong, I can probably convince you and most other people that its not a life option (since essentially it states that nothing matters). Based on the fact that you do have some things you care about we can build a common ‘moral’ framework between us, or if you dislike the word moral, a framework of expected actions. Unfortunately this leaves ethics a bit weak when it comes to condemning Machiavellis, but I never said ethical systems are perfect.

23 04 2012
Peter A.

‘…it’s a stilted straw man of an argument rigged to favor the scientific ignorance of the religious masses disregarding the actual science that’s been done…’

From what I have thus far observed of the actual science that has been done regarding this very subject, I have to say that it is not terribly impressive. The basic gist of the arguments that are put forth are that it is in the interests of individuals to obey certain rules of behaviour not because, for example, it is inherently wrong to kill, but because such action(s) that are deemed to be immoral are immoral precisely because there are :
a. No advantages to be gained for the individual who might wish to misbehave in such a manner.
b. It is anti-social, and therefore counter-productive, to social cohesion.
c. Unethical behaviour is deleterious to one’s reputation.

There are other reasons, but the point that needs to be stressed is that there are NO over-arching reasons to behave ethically if one can, for example, get away with murder. In other words, as you so rightly point out, ‘this leaves ethics a bit weak when it comes to condemning Machiavelli’ and THAT is the whole problem with secular, situational ‘ethics’; i.e. there is no point at which one can truly distinguish between right and wrong. It is all ‘relative’, within ‘context’, and ‘open to interpretation’. What kind of (bizarre, in my opinion) ethical system is this, where correct behaviour is determined by to what extent one can get away with bad behaviour?

Truly moral (or ethical, if you prefer) people behave the way they do not because it somehow – and selfishly – enhances their standing among their community, or because it makes them feel good about themselves, or enhances the propagation of their ‘genes’, but because they have a true conviction and commitment to rising above their lower, base instincts. We are not mindless animals or drones, forever condemned to act only out of selfish self-interest, but, I would hope, able to transcend our ‘programming’. Humans are better than animals to the extent that we have free will and can do what is right based upon a higher morality than the vulgar, and patently obscene and immoral, Social Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ tripe that is being condoned and promoted by sociopaths convinced there is no higher reality other than what is in front of their own stupid nose.

24 04 2012
SuperJesus

First off, if you read my initial post I effectively distanced secular ethics from the evangelical’s simplistic straw man of Darwinian survival of the fittest. As upsetting as this might seem to some, the world is not a simple black and white cartoon, there are many nuanced hues and context definitely matters.

Reasonable people can agree that killing is wrong, but those same reasonable people might also agree that it is not wrong if in the course of self defense you happen to kill someone who is attacking you and your children. That is a simple example but there are millions more for other “morals”.

By the way, you conveniently avoid dealing with bad moral teachings in the Bible and other religious texts. Why don’t you follow them all as mandated by God? How is it you can read them and inherently recognize that some of them are completely immoral and should be disregarded?

24 04 2012
Peter A.

I ‘conveniently’ avoided discussing the Bible for the simple reason that I am not a Christian of any denomination. I’ve read that (in my opinion, awful) book, and I would not turn to it for guidance on proper behaviour, or anything else for that matter. However, I do believe that even though there are many situations that are not ‘black and white’ there are many that are (ex. killing just for the ‘fun’ of it, and not in self-defense).
The Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ IS simplistic, but there are too many smug Darwinists on the net who think they are being clever when they use it in their arguments, not realising they betray their ignorance when they do so.

I also noticed that I attributed a quote (the ‘Machiavelli’ one above) to you, when it had actually been posted by ‘OldNick’; sorry, silly me. 😦

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