Is there a common, universal morality that transcends cultures?

Are there some cultures that can be termed as immoral, or amoral, and is there a level of morality that can be quantitatively discerned?

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Of course, there is. Otherwise what theists say about atheists would be true and we would all be immoral. We would have a high prison population. Yet, in spite of the beliefs of some, our numbers in prison are drastically lower than all the rest. Yes, I think there is a universal morality and unless someone has been raised in the forest by wolves, they know what it is. I think even the most horrible serial killers know right from wrong. They just don't care.

I don't know if you can measure morality in a culture because what is okay in one culture might not be in another. For example, in many Muslim cultures wearing a Speedo or a bikini is immoral. In most European and western cultures, bikinis and Speedos are fine. There may be a way to measure the morality of any given culture, but I wouldn't know how to do it. An anthropologist or a social scientist might.
Seconded. Cultural relativism is a great way to do anthropology, a terrible way to run a society. It was developed specifically to attempt to remove the moral bias (that we all have) from anthropological study; it's hard to understand why a hunter-gatherer tribe is practicing infanticide if all you can do is moralize the behavior according to the standards of your own culture. It's not a sufficient ground on which to base our morals or actions towards other people.

That said, anthropologists are also aware of what are sometimes called "maladaptive behaviors", that is, the culture is engaging in a practice that could actually be destroying the culture or population (think of the Dutch going nuts for tulip bulbs). I think this may be as close to making a moral judgement call as most field anthropologists get, and not infrequently, they feel obliged to help. As you can imagine this whole idea of maladaptive behaviors is up to a lot of debate.
There is no objective litmus against which to test a moral value. There are moral preferences that many people agree on, but morality is always based on subjective evidence. ie... no absolutes
Isn't murder i.e. killing out of hate, pretty much a universal moral preference of prohibited behavior? I know there are a lot of cultures that say it is sometimes ok to kill a person, but out of hate? I don't think anyone wants it to be ok to murder them so we all agree not to murder each other even though sometimes we still do it.

It's not everybody and it isn't an absolute but we are a 'close enough' bunch of people that murder is frowned on the world over. This is because a person who can kill you out of hate can kill anyone for the same reason and most people don't want to die. Killing for advantage or rivalry isn't even as bad as killing with malice aforethought or murder. You could always start your litmus test with murder. It might yield some fuzzy results but wouldn't that be enough to have a global conversation on? Sure, there are no absolutes but majority rules, right? The world should focus on the morals that are shared more or less and try to let the rest of them go.
"Isn't murder i.e. killing out of hate, pretty much a universal moral preference of prohibited behavior?"

No it isn't. Even though I think murder is a repulsive behavior and harmful to society, concepts like "right" and "wrong" are human constructs. Morality does not exist in nature. It is a reflection of cultural norms and nothing more.

Historically, the human species has cycled through countless moral codes. Some of these codes included malicious murder as acceptable behavior. I can't judge the "rightness" of moral norms from other places and times, because I will simply be viewing them through the lens of my own culture and personal biases.

I agree with you on establishing rules of behavior based on something. But, I don't know what that something is. I am not sure about "majority rules," as the majority tends to be a fairly base crowd. For instance, the majority may not agree with gay rights or women's rights or the rights of any minority (atheists included).

Empathy (do unto others) seems to be our best tool for determining morality... and it is a pretty crappy tool, as the way I would prefer to be treated may be fairly distasteful to you.
What the fuck do you mean, "No it isn't." So, tell me, where can I go on this great earth to kill someone because I hate them and have the surrounding society give me a pat on the back for it? How can you claim an answer to my question and then back it up with nothing? I know morality doesn't exist in nature but that does not mean that human beings the world over don't tend to agree that murder is repulsive behavior. Also, I never said anything about human history I was talking about the present. Can you actually point out a historical moral code that allowed a societies' members to murder each other without some sort of justification? By the way, when killing is justified it's not murder, it is something else. Murder is killing with prior intent.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice


i'm actually not sure but these people must have had a different moral code.

and only helps to prove something i said a while back "Only Religion can drive humans to murder with smiles on their faces"
That was a cool study. Still a reflection of culture though, albeit a global one. Moral norms will continue to wax and wane even as world cultures blend more and more together.

How bout this? If a moral code were established and mandated world wide to everyone's satisfaction (I know that's impossible), and literally carved in stone for all humans to abide by... wouldn't that start looking a little like religion?... you know... instead of God's ten commandments, we'd have man's commandments?

I think as soon as you establish ANY absolute moral, you've just fallen a trap.
I agree that the culture who stones 13 year old rape victims certainly meets my definition of sick and amoral, but my definition is gauged by my personal, subjective moral standards.

Maybe one of the motivations behind inventing god/s was to provide an external, absolute standard for morality. In the absence of god, we can only observe and study the behaviors of the human species as we would any other. For instance, the human animal has tendencies towards, forming groups, vying for dominance, establishing pecking orders, and developing structured moral codes.

One group of humans (North Americans) demonstrates a particular set of behavioral tendencies, while another group within the same species (Japanese) exhibits a slightly different set of behavioral norms. Which group of humans is behaving with the greatest degree of "rightness?"

One variety of bears (black bears) demonstrates a particular set of behavioral tendencies, while another group within the same species (polar bears) exhibits a slightly different set of behavioral norms. Which group of bears is behaving with the greatest degree of "rightness?"
I love this topic, because it is sort of mind boggling.

I worked with inner city youth for a few years in North Charleston. These little boys were holy terrors. They were literally the rapists and murderers of the future. They were violent, abusive and aggressive. They all carried diagnoses for conduct disorder.

The behavioral norms for these kids were completely out of synch with appropriate school behavior. As a result, they were constantly in trouble at school.

However, I spent a good deal of time in their home environments and found that their behaviors were perfectly adaptive to this setting. Children in this environment who were not violent, abusive and aggressive were quickly victimized. If one of the "well behaved" kids from school were to trade places with one of the sociopathic kids, the well behaved kid would not survive.

I think the complexity of human systems creates a "can't see the forest for the trees" phenomenon. A lot of the confusion over subjective morality is the result of natural human defense mechanisms. I.e. I deeply desire an objective moral litmus, so I reject the obvious evidence to the contrary in favor of rationalizations that better match my personal preferences. The Ad Populum argument is really just another rationalization.
I like the analogy of the snake eating it's own tail. It definitely makes sense to examine behavior as it relates survival of the species... but you still fall in to the same trap as soon as you make the judgment that adaptive behavior=moral behavior.

I like the existentialists take on things: Life is essentially meaningless. We have the opportunity as individuals and cultures to create meaning. "Meaning" is, therefore, always subjective. Morality is one dimension of meaning. In this way, the development of a moral code is more a creative work of art than an objective mathematical formula.
;-)

Very much enjoyed the exchange!

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