Morals and Atheism

Posted by on July 25, 2010 in Thoughts | 33 comments

Believers in god often ask “Where do morals come from?” They expect the answer to be “from God”, mostly because they can’t imagine that something so much at the heart of human interaction can have risen naturally.

Well the answer is reasonably simple, but long. So let me see if I can be as brief as possible with this.

As I understand it, morals and empathy all come from the same place, as survival mechanisms. Bear with me a moment and I’ll explain.

Survival mechanisms exist within every plant and animal in the world. In humans, it is highly evolved, from the simple sensation such as feeling pain to conserve the body, on to external mechanisms such as ones that conserve the family unit or the tribe. Our survival mechanisms, as in many other animal species, aim to preserve the species, starting with the individual, then to the family, then the community.

Because we are intelligent enough to recognise pain and suffering within ourselves, and we do not want it, we are also able to suppose those same feelings onto others. And we also have, through our evolution, the ability to imagine things, such as the pain and suffering of others in Sudan or Ethiopia.

So as you can see, what once started out as mechanistic responses to stimuli with the purpose of preserving the individual have, over millions of years, developed into what we now call empathy.

Morals are just the application of these feelings and natural responses to the environment around us. People tend to think of morals as universal, but unfortunately they are not, the are objectively linked to the cultural, societal and religious impositions of individual situations. What is universal is our abilities to impose our feelings onto others, and have a sense of the suffering of others.

Makes sense right? And when looked at from this perspective, it’s not a great leap from empathetic understanding to personal morality.

“Ah” you say, “but the problem with evolution is that all plants & animals are packed with INFORMATION – the complicated instructions that co-ordinate the many processes enabling the body & brain to function. How does information get into a human psyche to manifest as truth what morals are? Or what sympathy is or empathy or intelligence? Its arrival ? Its knowing & recognising that it is what it is? You pack software into a computer, it recognises the information in it and acts accordingly.”

This comment actually came from a Facebook thread, where a person was claiming God as the reason for our Morals.

To this string of questions I say this.

There is a disconnect for many people between the idea of evolution and the state of things now, and this is because humans cannot possibly contemplate billions of years, let alone anything past a few generations of human life spans. If you were to somehow get past this inability, it all becomes much clearer.

All processes in the brain are the result of evolution over billions of years. Billions of years, not thousands. Most plants and animals and bacteria are born with small imperfection in them, or mutations. The ones with large mutations perish, and the ones with small unnoticeable ones continue to flourish. The “software” we have in our brains is a combination of evolved mechanisms, such as self-preservation, and social and cultural impositions, such as being taught not to park in a “no-standing” zone. Morality, as a construct will not arise in isolation, we impose it upon each other via social interaction and by education. Everything evolves from something, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

So using evolutionary theory, all your questions are answered, as long as we keep in mind that every feeling and thought we have as highly complex and intelligent animals would once upon a time have been a slightly simpler, or even a very basic thought/impulse/reaction.

Just because something like empathy is complex, and it forms the basis of our societies, doesn’t mean that historically, somewhere along the line, there was an animal, one of our own ancestors, who had slightly less of this feeling of empathy. “The Golden Rule” was not invented in the bible, but is a basic tendency we must adhere to if we are to survive. People recognised this long before any of the “God books” were written, and we carry this with us to this day, because a combination of our genes and our education dictates that this is the right way to go. There is nothing “otherworldly” or miraculous about it.

Unfortunately, I cannot account for other people’s inability to understand theories of evolution and sociology. All I can do is try to explain it.

Further Reading
The Moral Naturalists

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33 Comments

  1. Nice concise packaging of the morality as a construct of empathy, selected for over many generations of primate evolution argument Marty.

    There is plenty of evidence presented in the literature that empathy extends to our primate cousins, as too other members of the animal kingdom, with many examples of semi-ritualistic behaviours in dealing with elderly, sick or dying members of the population – elephants, whales and great apes spring to mind. I’d quote some references if I weren’t commenting via the iPhone, but a quick google reveals results fairly quickly.

    When one considers the plethora of similarities of moral code embedded within the various mainstream religious texts and teachings, it’s no surprise given the comparatively short period as a percentage of human existence these religions have existed, given the genetic predisposition we humans display towards empathetic and altruistic behavior. If all religions grew from humankind’s parental and cultural teachings about appropriate behavior, then one would expect these similarities of morality, given the common root, the evolutionary selection for these empathetic, altruistic traits which benefited the tribe, village or community.

    Thanks for the “food for thought”. I wish more of us reflected upon these things and weren’t afraid to discuss them openly and intelligently!

    Lucas Randall (aka Codenix aka @LucasRandall)

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  2. Impressed you actually did keep it brief :)

    Systems theory is great at explaining how human behaviour is just a more complex version of the examples you gave of survival instincts in plants. There is power in numbers and for a group of animals such as humans to co-habitate there needs to be good cooperative social instincts.

    A few weeks ago on Twitter I mentioned that atoms experience love too … it’s called a covalent chemical bond. So it’s not that much of a stretch of the imagination to explain morals as an evolutionary development. Morals are not unique to humans – it’s just the label that’s unique.

    Having been raised as a Christian (which you can read more about on my blog MyExodus.com.au) I believed that lying was immoral. Now that I’m outside of that church and am working on my own moral framework I no longer take such a hardline approach to lying. I don’t believe it’s always immoral – I don’t believe I’m an immoral person.

    Yet according to these “God-given morals” I am an immoral person because I believe it’s ok to lie occasionally. Who’s right?

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  3. To sum up… morals come from our own Human experiences obtained throughout our short life-span.

    Very Good post.

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  4. Morals/Ethics are about what one ought to do, even if there is no fear of direct negative consequences to oneself and there is a substantial benefit to oneself in violating them. There is no possible way of deriving them from evolution, since there are no ‘ought to’s in evolution. An ‘ought to’ requires a purpose and evolution, as we understand it, is purposeless.

    The best you can say about them, from an atheist/evolutionary standpoint, is that they are an evolutionary strategy that when adopted for internal use enhance the survival of the indiviuduals of a group, but which, if limited history is any indicator, must be flouted between groups, especially if you belong to the stronger group. After all, talking about morality and ethics internally but massacring and plundering others is exactly how the West got to where it is now.

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    • Morals are a human construct, they are not universal, and have arisen from our empathy for each other. The morals arose because we know what it’s like to be hurt as individuals, and can see sufferring in others. When people then apply their own biases to this, such as churches or whatever, that’s when morals diverge into the subjective.

      The empathy is the evolutionary survival strategy, morals are merely tacked on top of this.

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  5. Great post. You might be able to helpfully at flesh to the bones of your simple-to-complex moral process outline by considering such things as Mirror Neurons to the picture.
    I find that Mirror Neurons provide another fairly intuitive way of seeing how empathy could have arisen.

    See this TED Talk by VS Ramachandran on Mirror Neurons if you are interested: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html

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  6. I actually think that morals come from an intrinsic selfishness. We do good for selfish reasons, it makes us feel better, it makes people like us more, etc. It is definitely a survival thing. Humans who interact better, have generally better lives and better opportunities.
    But I think this is true for both religious and non-religious people – i.e. that they are moral for selfish reasons. To get into heaven, to win the approval of others, to increase one’s self esteem…
    Just my opinion though – I don’t have any research to back it up :)

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  7. In the light of AtheistClimber’s response to my comment above, I have to say this, when someone asks where do morals come from, they are actually asking “What is the basis of your own morality” or in other words, “Why would I expect you to act morally?” to which the answer seems to be, “Because I feel empathy to the others”. That, of course, is consistent with the Western concept of “morality”, religious or otherwise, where all the moral obligations are limited to who you consider “your own”.

    However, the concept that some others, like me, have been brought up with is slightly different. Some parts of the morality, like not stealing from, not murdering etc., are explictly directed towards “others”, those towards whom you feel a far lesser degree of empathy. In this code, it is a bigger offcence to steal from a stranger than from one’s own and a bigger offence to murder an outsider than an insider. That is not a concept to be expected to emerge from empathy.

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    • Morals are simply social lubricant.

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  8. So they can be anything you want them to be, as long as you can claim the same purpose and enforce through law and/or propaganda! Which is exactly what the religious people are afraid of as being the agenda behind militant atheism.

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    • No, Ganapati. You got that exactly wrong.

      Codified, public moral laws are different to the subjective feelings of people.

      1) They must be shaped and approved by reason, not be irrational or arbitrary.

      2) They must be based on true evidence of what causes harm and what hurts people and society (fact), rather than being the products of imaginary or impulsive private “revelations” (speculation).

      3) They must be formed through and within the context of the relationship between people (social, objective), rather than be the sole product of one person’s wishes, desires, or agendas (selfish, subjective).

      Next time you talk to somebody, try to show them more respect by actually presuming they may have something valuable to teach you rather than by throwing bigoted and paranoid one-liners at them.

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  9. Good post, man. To me, seeing humankind’s moral sense in evolutionary terms makes it stronger and more real, than does the idea it’s received from some external (divine) agency.

    Simply, at some point killing each other ceases to be a useful evolutionary strategy. Over evolutionary timeframes, the genes that led to co-operative behaviours were more successful than those driving endless competition.

    To think of evolution at an individual level misses the point. To think that evolution couldn’t have led to a generally-held view that theft is wrong – because surely that would benefit the their and help their genes be passed on – is way too simplistic.

    Of course, we should also recognize that humanity is far from homogenous. There are people who have slightly or even vastly different moral compasses. They’re not possessed; it’s simply that there will always be aberrations and extremes.

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  10. Iain,
    AtheistClimber has explicitly stated that morals are not universal and hence cannot be objective. You claim morals are objective. Care to explain how you can have objective, but not universal morals? What would be the source of such morals? Empathy is ruled out, since empathy doesn’t have an objective basis: two different people do not have the same degree of empathy to a third person.

    I am extremely curious to know the “objective” moral code under which bandits (Westerners are bandits and that is an objective fact) are the torch-bearers of morality that others should learn from.

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    • Ganapti, Iain is talking about codified moral laws – these are different from actual morals in that they’re simply the legislated consensus of the majority in any one society.

      *sigh*

      I’m not sure if you’re trying to cause trouble or are simply overwhelmed by the subject matter.

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    • Westerners are bandits? Whaaaaaa? How do you back that up? I’m a westerner. Do I run around bashing people for cash, or raping women, or pillaging the caches of local communities? Possible historically, and only what you read about, yeah you could perceive westerners to be “bandits” but what you have made there is a completely subjective statement.

      As to morals, they are only subjective to the point that each civilisation makes it’s own calls on what is to be perceived as morality as effected by the various cultural and religious biases we encounter in our own societies. To tarnish the universal norms of caring for loved ones coming from empathy is dishonest. I see what you are trying to say, but frankly I feel you are being disingenuous.

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  11. Nathaniel Boehm,
    Consensus is no proof of objectivity and Iain claimed objectivity for morals. Consensus can be achieved as easily by propaganda as by objectivity.

    No, I have no intentions of causing trouble. The subject matter, far from overwhelming me, is something that have been searching for on various atheist sites for a while now. When I stumbled upon this page, I joined the discussion.

    As I have mentioned earlier, when a religious person asks a question “Where do morals come from?”, it is not a philosophical enquiry into the origin of morals. The question is “How can I trust that you won’t lie, steal or murder if you stand to gain from them?”. A religious person’s, for example a Christian’s, defence would be that since he/she believes that God is omniscient, they cannot really get away with it and hence can be expected not to lie, steal or murder. Emapthy as the source of morals for an atheist would imply that an atheist may not be expected to lie to, steal from or murder those he/she feels empathetic to, but may not be expected to be so constrained when dealing with a person he/she feels no empathy to. Probably good enough to maintain social order in a kinship based tribe, but not much helpful in larger societies.

    AtheistClimber,
    The last time I checked, Western banditry is in fullswing in Iraq and plans are being made for Iran through sanctions and the usual preparations.

    I have not tarnished empathy. I said existing set of morals, of most societies, cannot be derived exclusively from empathy. Morality is more than altruism, which is successfully explained both by group selection as well as gene selection theories of evolution. Moral codes of most societies prohibit one from lying to, stealing from and murdering even those one may feel no empathy to, at least as long as they are ‘insiders’. Morality of most societies can be derived from survival, but not of the individual or the species, but of a social organism be it tribe, nation or race which had reasonably rigid boundaries and insiders were easy to tell from outsiders.

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    • “AtheistClimber,
      The last time I checked, Western banditry is in fullswing in Iraq and plans are being made for Iran through sanctions and the usual preparations.”

      Your claim that “Westerners are bandits and that is an objective fact” is completely subjective, and thoroughly untrue to the West as a whole. “The West” is a big place filled with a lot of people, and you are condemning an entire group of societies as bandits because of the governmental decisions to wage war. These kinds of sweeping generalizations do not help anyone. You cannot make generalizations like that without backing it up. Your example of Iraq and Iran speaks of military presences and governmental policies, not of societies or cultures. I find it difficult to trust your judgment of objectivity when you fail to recognize your own subjective assessments of “The West”. It’s a dangerous path we follow when we make an assessment of a whole population based on the actions of its government or military.

      “I have not tarnished empathy. I said existing set of morals, of most societies, cannot be derived exclusively from empathy. Morality is more than altruism, which is successfully explained both by group selection as well as gene selection theories of evolution. Moral codes of most societies prohibit one from lying to, stealing from and murdering even those one may feel no empathy to, at least as long as they are ‘insiders’. Morality of most societies can be derived from survival, but not of the individual or the species, but of a social organism be it tribe, nation or race which had reasonably rigid boundaries and insiders were easy to tell from outsiders.”

      I’m not talking about altruism, where one can look after the welfare of others at the expense of themselves, rather I a talking about an empathetic understanding of what other people suffer.

      I point you back to my original post:
      “All processes in the brain are the result of evolution over billions of years. Billions of years, not thousands. Most plants and animals and bacteria are born with small imperfection in them, or mutations. The ones with large mutations perish, and the ones with small unnoticeable ones continue to flourish. The “software” we have in our brains is a combination of evolved mechanisms, such as self-preservation, and social and cultural impositions, such as being taught not to park in a “no-standing” zone. Morality, as a construct will not arise in isolation, we impose it upon each other via social interaction and by education. Everything evolves from something, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

      So using evolutionary theory, all your questions are answered, as long as we keep in mind that every feeling and thought we have as highly complex and intelligent animals would once upon a time have been a slightly simpler, or even a very basic thought/impulse/reaction.

      Just because something like empathy is complex, and it forms the basis of our societies, doesn’t mean that historically, somewhere along the line, there was an animal, one of our own ancestors, who had slightly less of this feeling of empathy. “The Golden Rule” was not invented in the bible, but is a basic tendency we must adhere to if we are to survive. People recognised this long before any of the “God books” were written, and we carry this with us to this day, because a combination of our genes and our education dictates that this is the right way to go. There is nothing “otherworldly” or miraculous about it.”

      As for the idea of morals differing from society to society, yes that is true, and I have said, morals are a human construct and the result of a combination of our own desire to be well and recognizing that in others affected by our own man-made constructs such as culture and society and religion.

      The only thing that is universal about this is the fact that we all have morals which stem from the same place, from our evolution as beings and the societal evolution that each culture has undergone.

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  12. Ganapati,
    I already explained fairly well what I meant by objective. You keep using me as though I prove some point or demonstrate a weakness in AtheistClimber’s view, but you seem unclear about what I even mean by “objective”.

    I will try to explain more fully. :)

    When I say “objective” I mean, “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. In other words, something is objective if it is derived via facts about the external world OR if it is designed impartially between many people in such a way that it is not victim to the subjective desires of any single individual.

    I said, “Codified, public moral laws are different to the subjective feelings of people.

    1) They must be shaped and approved by reason, not be irrational or arbitrary.

    2) They must be based on true evidence of what causes harm and what hurts people and society (fact), rather than being the products of imaginary or impulsive private “revelations” (speculation).

    3) They must be formed through and within the context of the relationship between people (social, objective), rather than be the sole product of one person’s wishes, desires, or agendas (selfish, subjective).”

    It is important to realise that I was responding to your comment, “So they can be anything you want them to be, as long as you can claim the same purpose and enforce through law and/or propaganda!”

    Notice that I was specifically talking about public, codified, MORAL LAWS, and not talking about personal moral judgments, affect, and intuitions.

    Okay. Now to put the pieces together.

    For any Public Law to be reasonable, it should be based on true facts about the way people and society work, it should reflect best practices policy suggestions that have been empirically demonstrated to benefit people more than their alternatives, and not in any way be arbitrary, nor ever be subjectively decreed merely to conform to the will of one dictatorial person.
    When asked, “Why did you make this Law?” the answer should always be, “Because of good reasons A, B, C…” and not “Because I said so” or “Because I felt like it”.

    The same thing is true in the codification of public moral laws. Moral sentiments and judgments may vary from person to person, or between cultures, but that doesn’t mean that you can publically espouse just anything you feel like.
    PUBLIC moral laws must be based on evidence about what truly harms people (rather than by dogmatic decree).
    PUBLIC moral laws must be based on the recognition of social relationships rather than the whimsy of one person.
    PUBLIC moral laws must be forged by and defensible using reason, rather than being the products of arbitrary or ideological thinking.

    For these reasons, because they are based on external facts and relationships rather than private desires and agendas, these public moral laws are “objective” rather than “subjective”.

    There is certainly more than one way to make a society flourish, but it is not true that just any answer will do.

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    • Thanks for clarifying what you meant by “objective”. By it you mean a consensus.

      I am sure the decision to massacre the natives in America and in Australia satisfied, for the people doing the massacring, all the conditions you mentioned and hence moral by your definition. For some very “subjective” reasons, I beg to differ.

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  13. AtheistClimber,
    When a certain behaviour is exhibited by people acting collectively and the behaviour is exhbited across generations, for centuries, it is very much objective to attribute that behaviour to the people. In fact, your attempt to dissociate yourselves selectively from the actions of your society acting as a whole, is an assurance that we need not expect your societies to behave any differently in future either.

    I am not surprised that Westerners who shout from the rooftops about “Human rights” and “universal values” etc are suddenly claiming to morals to be localised and subjective. After all, any code that can be expected to be applied to individuals and groups equally is not likely to prove favourable to the West either in judging their past or their present. The only way to save the embarassment is to declare that morals cannot be universal.

    Good luck with your “morals”!

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    • You’re not really listening to what we say, Ganapati. You make ad hominem attacks with no real evidence to back them up. You don’t address the validity of any of the good points we make. You merely assert your own points.

      You think you were intending to annoy? I say you are just trolling for amusement.

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    • Hmm… Interesting assertions Ganapati.

      As an aside, I am most curious to hear your views on the morality of the caste system.

      I am of course making the assumption that you are a an advocate and indeed condone the perpetuation of said oppressive system of subjugating people based on their birth station; due to your name being derived from a text that advocates the worship of a multi armed elephant – to wit – the Ganapati Atharvashirsa.

      Before you make another comment about “westerners” being “bandits”, please enlighten we ignorant folk over here with regards to the morality and ethics of your peoples institutionalised system of racism.

      I am assuming that you are Brahmin based on your supreme arrogance.

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    • Ganapati,

      Your comments are deliberately leading, and your purpose here appears to be disingenuous. I am not my culture. I am not my society. You’ve thrown out a strawman argument, or at very least you are trying to prove that I am a “bandit” because of historical injustices served by the culture that I am somehow a representative of. And because of that “objective fact”, who am I to comment on Morals?

      Your sweeping statement claim of banditry from westerners is completely subjective. In the same way, you could say “All Afghans are terrorists” or “All black people are unemployed”. It’s a bigoted statement, and you are wrong my friend.

      You have already made your mind up that you are right, and no amount of attempting to prove otherwise will suffice for you.

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  14. Iain,
    I had no intention to annoy, but I wasn’t trying to deliberately avoid annoying anyone either.

    Not bothering about the good points made is I suppose a common trait of all atheists when dealing with religious people. Why should atheists be an exception? :-) If you intend to replace the source of a system of ethics, the replacement must be at least as good as the existing one.

    leapingjudas,
    I am amused that you would consider it extreme arrogance to deny Westerners moral supremacy and also that someone who denies that must necessarily belong to some particular class.

    There existed no caste system, state recognised/mandated/supported discrimination based on caste, in India for over 1000 years when the state control passed decisively into the hands of those whose traditions were very different from Indian. However, since our political independence in 1947 the state has taken cognisance of the existence of a social discrimination based on caste and decided to put an end to it by discriminating in favour of of those who were discrimintaed against traditionally and also to outlaw expressions of extreme discrimination and I support that. I don’t see that as institutionalised racism since it actually tries to bring parity between castes in terms of economic, social and political power and not maintain existing differences to favour those who traditionally enjoyed such power.

    AtheistClimber,
    Of course, you are not your culture and your society, but those are very much part of you. I am not saying you are responsible for things over which you have no control, like your past, either. However, to deny accountability for those that you have control over, means that you either do not intend them to change or that you don’t care if they changed or not since they don’t affect you particularly negatively.

    Its your choice what you want to be concerned about, but I couldn’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t concern himself/herself with the most extreme forms of immorality like murder and plunder that he/she has control over, but wishes to discuss morality. Of course, it is possible that murder and plunder of “others” are not immoral according to your sense of morality, whatever it is, in which case, there simply are no grounds for discussion between us, since there won’t be a possibility of an agreement.

    As for lumping all Westerners together, no I don’t think all Westerners are bandits or support/condone banditry. But is it a generalisation that is useful to predict what the motivations of a random Westerner encouraging social action are? It sure is. When every possible “concern” Westerners exhibit about others/world and clamour for Western action, somehow ends up in murder and plunder for the others and benefits to the West, it is only reasonable to assume that is the intent of those showing the “concern”.

    Westerners are no longer going to be believed for what they claim their motivations are. We are more than fed up with the good cop-bad cop routine amongst Westerners where the only points of debate are reduced to two different Western views and the rest are supposed to pick one. The costs of wrongly trusting Westerners and failing to see through the deception are quite high and the whole world is waking upto this deception.

    You may be under the mistaken assumption that as long as there is a consensus within the West about nice you are, you lead the world in every aspect and the only judgment the world will have of the West is its own self-judgment. Sure, our governments and diplomats won’t tell you to your face that you are bandits nor will the non-Westerners living in the West, but rest assured everyone is getting to know you for what you are. The only way you will be perceived not as bandits is if you, as societies, ,act differently but considering the eagerness with which you disclaim any responsibility for the current actions of your societies against the rest, I am not holding my breath.

    Yes, my mind is made up, since I have considered all the available evidence. However, I am not particularly insistent on Westerners being bandits taken as an objective fact either as long as banditry itself is accepted as immoral. I mentioned it only when I was told to be ready to be “taught” about morality. No, I am not particularly interested in being taught by Westerners about morality. However, I am willing to discuss about what could form a sufficient basis for morality, if there are no serious differences about what is moral.

    Do you have different moral codes for individuals and groups (when dealing with other groups)? Does your morality condone actions against “others” that it doesn’t condone against “one’s own”? If your answer to either is an yes, we don’t need to discuss any further.

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    • While you say you don’t believe that all Westerners are bandits, even though you vehemently claimed this previously to illustrate an “objective truth”, you go on to say that I somehow have control over murder and plunder? Am I an army colonel? No. Am I even in the armed forces? No. Do I condone such actions? No. In fact I have been vocal in denouncing the armed forces presences in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course “banditry” is immoral, at least in the way I understand the term, and in my own morality. I would not seek to harm anyone. Is this what you’re getting at?

      I can assure you, my “concern” has nothing to do with my intention of plundering or banditry. In fact my real and heartfelt concern is from seeing the injustices of the world, all around us at all levels, and recognising that everyone needs to change their attitudes toward one another. Yes that includes you, and I don’t pretend to know the “morality” of your culture, but I’m sure if I did I could probably pick some holes in it.

      I think you claim a “moral high-ground” and feel that your own culturally based morality is superior to mine. Yet I think what you perceive to be the “morality” of the West is not in fact morality but corporate greed, which is just about as removed from morality as you can get. It’s a much more complex problem than you seem to see, by lumping all the injustices of the West in a perceived “moral code”.

      Just because something “is” doesn’t make it part of a moral system.

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    • I still don’t see how this is an argument against moral relativism, or one for absolute morality. Why would you trust someone, who is motivated to act good/bad on the basis of the the carrot/stick motivation of heaven/hell (i.e., prudence dressed up in moral clothing), more than an atheist who is motivated by social and personal rewards/punishments received in this (one and only) life?

      If there is an objective/universal/absolute moral standard why should religion (or another culture, for that matter) necessarily have a special claim to this standard, excluding a reasoning atheist?

      Lots of questions from me, and no answers. Sorry :)

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  15. Ganapati, you are being disingenuous in the extreme.

    To happily omit that the extremely prejudicial, inherently racist caste system has at its roots; Hindu scriptures, is intensely dishonest and renders your credibility obsolete.

    Feel free to treat us as fools if you wish, however, whilst your eloquence may baffle some, reading between the lines; it is clear to me that you are naught but an educated bigot.

    It is people like you who are the root cause of the ills of this world.

    An educated idiot does more harm to himself and those around him than a mere fool who only harms himself.

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  16. AtheistClimber,
    So who exactly is responsible for the actions of a society? The rulers, in a democracy, would say they are not responsible since they are simply responding to the people’s wishes. The military are under the orders of the civilian command, so they can’t be held responsible either. If people too disclaim responsibility, exactly who is supposed to be resposnible? Martians?

    We are, each part of a social organism, and are responsible for the actions of this social organism with respect to other social organisms as much as we are responsible for our individual actions with regard to other individuals.

    I do not claim any moral high-ground, but certainly do not accept a moral low-ground when dealing with Westerners. Are you incapable of conducting a discussion unless someone grants you a moral high ground?

    I am not particularly concerned with how you arrive at your morals or what morals you practice as long as I know what your morality says regarding dealing with other societies, which is what I have been trying to find out.

    Your concern for the injustices of the world is a little scary, especially considering the “freedom and democracy” Iraqis are enjoying. Is there some way in which you could limit your concern to your country or the West and leave the rest of the world to take care of itself?

    If what is done unapolegetically and over and over again doesn’t reflect the moral code, what does?

    Skiapod,
    I am not arguing for or against moral relativism and I am most certainly not arguing in favour of morality sanctioned by religions either. If all societies could find agreement on the moral code practiced internally in each, it just makes life quite simple for those who travel frequently between different societies, but that isn’t really a big concern. However, different societies are forced to deal with each other and each one’s moral code regarding dealing with the others impacts the others. It is that code that I am interested in knowing.

    Suppose that code for inter-society dealings is supposed to be evolved by a consensus internally within each of the societies, it means we need not expect a common code to refer to in order to judge actions by societies. It is a free for all where no common judgment about morality of actions by different societies need even be expected. If not and it is supposed to be a consensus between societies, we are forced to discuss a common moral code, for inter-society dealings, whether we agree there is a universal moral code or not covering all aspects.

    As for your last question, if there exists a universal moral code, why should someone have a special claim to the knowledge of this than another? Let me pose a counter question. If there exist universal objective laws of physics valid for all times why haven’t they been discovered before they were? The answer in both cases would be that the discovery of even objective phenomena requires a certain preparedness (like the availability of underlying mathematics) and observation and correlation.

    Of course, there is a fundamental difference between laws of physics and a universal moral code which is that laws of physics assume no purpose, while a moral code is necessarily derived from a purpose. As long as there exist widely differing perceptions about the purpose of human life, there is no possibility of a universal code of morals. However it is possible that human life does have a purpose that would be eventually discovered thus making a universal moral code possible. Until such time enforceable and comprehensive moral codes are bound to be localised.

    leapingjudas,
    Thanks for the kind words. You have me convinced :-)

    Hinduism isn’t based on any texts, but continuing tradition. Some scriptures may have documented some traditions and yet others may have given them divine sanction, but there is no single book or collection of books that is held as literal truth by all calling themselves Hindus and sharing the same traditions.

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    • Ganapati, I respect your perspective on this. It’s obviously important to open up dialogue regarding morality between societies, and have some sort of code with which to measure the impact of EVERY society on the others.

      But it’s important as well to be concerned with how each society treats its own members, and I think that empathy, respect and value for the individual life, goes a long way to setting things in motion for general application to individuals of other societies – a preparedness, if you will.

      I can see your point regarding the West’s impact on others, and your subsequent pessimism towards Western “promises”, but I think every culture has been guilty of this in some way or another; just not as “successfully” as the West has, if you’ll pardon the insensitivity of that word usage.

      Wow, I am all over the place with regard to making a point. I guess my argument is that perhaps concentrating on differences (in terms of perceptions of human life purpose) is the wrong approach to inter-societal consensus. How about commonality? I think that is where empathy becomes important. No harm in trying, eh?

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    • I as an individual have little sway over my government, you should know that. While this is a democracy, my voice is small in comparison to the masses. This is why I am writing my blog, to try and get my opinions heard. Don’t discourage that, the individual should be heard if he has good things to say. True we do vote our politicians into power, but the political system doesn’t allow for an individual, like myself, to simply say to my government “I don;t agree with you, and you should stop what you are doing.” It simply doesn’t work that way. The only way to get anything done is in numbers. If you think that my single voice can make a difference without numbers to back me up, you are naive.

      I don’t deny that the West haven’t done everything right in the past, not would I pretend that the reasons that the military-industrial complex’s actions of the USA is anything but for its own selfish ends. This is obvious to anyone looking. And while I do agree when you say: “We are, each part of a social organism, and are responsible for the actions of this social organism with respect to other social organisms as much as we are responsible for our individual actions with regard to other individuals,” this does not mean I can prevent a murder on the other side of town, or change the fact that soldiers are in Iraq.

      I never asked you to take a moral low ground, only that you look with a bit more objectivity toward me. It’s obvious you have an axe to grind against The West, and your bias is apparent. Having said that I can empathise with your position to a degree that the giant of the west is a big angry destructive machine. But at the same time, don’t you agree that every culture is guilty of something that will be at odds with another culture?

      My concerns with the world is not selfish, it’s not to do with you nor is it to do with telling your society what to do. It is a real and deeply founded concern, and no matter where I look I see the potential destruction of the human species. Your point about the “freedom and democracy the Iraqis are enjoying” is another strawman, trying to imply that I would like to impose western rule over the whole world. And frankly I take offense to it.

      I’m done with this conversation, but if the rest of you want to continue, feel free, I will only close the comments if it spirals down into personal insults.

      Thank you Ganapati and everyone else for your contributions to the debate.

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  17. Ganapati,

    Notice that you said, “We are, each part of a social organism, and are responsible for the actions of this social organism with respect to other social organisms as much as we are responsible for our individual actions with regard to other individuals.”

    Thanks, add a little bit of emotion and empathy to that picture and you just solved your own problems with what we’re saying about morality. You prove to me that you actually do understand even if you aren’t admitting it explicitly. Hopefully you can think on this a bit more and you might find we do make a lot of sense.

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  18. Skiapod,
    I am puzzled how you reconcile moral relativism with concern for how each society treats its own members. As a moral relativist by what standards do you judge how a society treats its own members, by their moral standards or yours?

    Inter-society dealings cannot be based on differences, but only on commonality.

    How would anyone distinguish between empathy and self-interest masquerading as empathy?

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