Martin Luther King Jr.

Morality is a human construct, by and for humans. If not, we'd have to get it from a natural source . . . or a supernatural one. I'm an atheist, so a supernatural source isn't a serious alternative to me. That leaves one alternative: Nature. But I can't detect the slightest whiff of morality in nature. Mother nature is red in tooth and claw. She is indifferent to violence, suffering and killing. Survival is her prime directive. So, if there is morality to be found in nature, what else could it be based on? Can the imperative of survival provide an objective moral standard for humanity?

If survival does provide an objective moral standard for humanity, "survival of the fittest" ain't it. We're not that cut-throat or indifferent to suffering. We have empathy and a sense of fairness: probably written in our genes. So how could survival serve as an objective moral standard?

I think that survival COULD serve as an objective moral standard if it's considered at all levels. By this I mean survival at the: genetic, individual, family, group, species and global levels. The idea here is that an act can be judged on its survival value at all these levels: the more value and the more levels that benefit, the more moral it could be considered.

But the problem with the survival-at-all-levels concept of morality is that it suffers the same weakness that all moral systems suffer from: subjectivity. An objective moral standard is an ideal impossible for humans to achieve because humans are not, and can't be, perfectly objective. We could try to adopt this moral standard but it's implementation is certain to fail when we interpret survival values.

So morality -- no matter where it comes from -- will always be a matter of personal beliefs, priorities and biases. Human morality is subjective because humans are subjective.

Assuming a healthy mind, where does morality come from? I think we make it out to be more complicated than it really is. We develop our morals from a combination of just two fundamental human characteristics: empathy and experience. From experience, I know what hurts me. Through empathy, I know the same things are likely to hurt you too. It's the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because empathy is informed by experience, morality matures as we do. But that doesn't mean everybody matures the same.

Morality formed before religion did. Morality is what we say it is. As humanity advances, so does our morality. The best religion can do with morality is to endorse some morals and condemn others. Historically, this has proven to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. By "writing our morals in stone" as religions are wont to do, they inevitably fall behind the times. They become antiquated. In the Bible, not even Jesus was aware how human subjugation (women and slaves) is unfair and unkind. Clearly, his morality was derived from the social milieu of his era and area. How can this be if Jesus is God? The answer is easy: it can't. Religions emerge from the social milieu of their eras and areas: they don't define or mold morals: they usurp them.

It's not a very satisfying answer for those who seek certainty but . . . there is no objective moral standard that humanity could actually implement successfully. Morality is subjective. It's an inherent property of the human condition.

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Comment by kent l thompson on December 28, 2013 at 3:31pm

Is there even such a thing as morality? I think morality is for those who wish to judge and condone the things that one wants........morality to me is like god......created by man to meet his wants and needs........

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 28, 2013 at 10:37am

Because of our advanced intelligence (compared to other animals), humans are capable of innumerably more things than animals. Many (most?) of these things raise moral issues. In medicine, genetics, industry and the military, for instance, complex moral issues arise from the application of technology. Even with our superior mental prowess, it can be difficult to sort out moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, pollution and chemical weapons.

Animals don't have a correlate to human concern for morality.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 27, 2013 at 11:03pm

One can play with the scenario and make it 3:1 or 3:2 instead of 5:1, and then reassess the situation, choice.  In most cases the least number of victims would be chosen, though one could change the situation by making Track 1 victims  3 elderly 80+ retirees and track 2  has a young couple.  Many would in that case leave it on track 1.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 27, 2013 at 10:39pm

Though, the problem with having higher intelligence in many situations where moral and ethical decisions are required, is that too often we don't utilize the higher intellect.  

Because many such situations are often emotionally charged, and base emotions overrule conscious decision making.

This is the function of our pre-frontal cortex that allows us to delay a response to a situation or event, but it takes time and energy to instill advance rational considerations into a response.

Too many times there is not the time to deliberate, too often the emotions drive the response and rational logic takes a back seat.

As many of the references I have read and cited state, the Highly Intellectual moral framework becomes too often an Afterthought, or an excuse/explanation for responses already made.

When faced with a moral choice, we will too often revert to primal instincts.

Say the old "Runaway Carriage Scenario".   You have control over the direction of a runaway carriage that is hurtling down a track, where there are only two choices of track, 1 and 2.

Track 1 has 5 people on it who will be killed if you leave it on that track.  Track 2 has only one person it.  Many people will, if they have time to choose, claim that they will switch it to track 2, which is considered as only killing 1 individual instead of 5 or collateral damage.

Yet, supposedly that 1 person happens to be the world's leading cancer researcher who has almost single handed and will likely produce a cure for melanoma which will save millions of lives and the 5 are layabout, receivers of government welfare who spend all their money on drugs.   

Now, does this situation change the decision, it will for many.

Where is the greater good.

Though since you only have around 10 seconds to make the decision, more likely it will be made purely on emotion, not rational logic, for which all your great human intellect will be absorbed in making excuses or explanations of why you made the choice you did.

Essentially it all comes down to primitive, pre-conditioning, which will guide your moral choice, rarely it will be made on Highly Rational Intelligent Considerations.

Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 27, 2013 at 10:39am


I wasn't attempting to imply that my thoughts are yours, and am not sure how you saw what I said as putting words in your mouth.  I'm trying to understand and help frame the conversation, and simply asking whether I have your arguments right.  I don't have any agenda and I repeat that I'm mostly agreeing with you.  If I've made my arguments in such a way as to imply that I'm right and you're wrong, it was my misunderstanding or a less than skillful use of language, and I humbly apologize.  I'm hoping that we can have a fruitful discussion here about how or if human morality differs from the observed responses of other living things.

When I see you frame things as humans vs. animals, as in "We have advanced intelligence. Animals don't.", It begs the question: Do you really mean to imply that we humans are not "animals"?  I doubt that you do, but that sort of religious language makes it hard to carry on a rational discussion.  What D'Dog (if I may presume) and I have been saying is that our human "morality" is just our particular species way of responding to an environment in which we have taken a social tack.

D'Dog said, "As Buddhism teaches, much of what we humans consider as consciousness, including our inflated concepts of morality, are essentially illusions.  In fact our complete sense of Self, is an illusion."  Maybe so, but so what?  Movies are illusions, but we can still enjoy and comment about them.  I'm still hoping that this conversation can be about those things peculiar to our species that we define (such as we vaguely have so far) as "morality".  If it were a conversation among raccoons, it would first be in a different media but it would also be about how raccoon morality differs from squirrel morality.  Raccoons likely see themselves as just as "special" as do we.  When we make the argument wholly self-referential we run a large risk of engaging in unproductive circular logic.

Again (and again!) I don't think that anyone here is saying that human morality is the same as termite social response.  What at least D'Dog and I keep saying is that it's difficult to understand human morality when it's divorced from its basic underpinnings.  Making that split may let us focus on the differences, which itself is an interesting topic, but denying that there is very close congruence is a religious or at least tribalistic argument.

We humans do things very much the way that other critters do things.  We've inherited abnormally swollen brains, and so we do some things differently and even some things that other critters just can't.  Some of what we do, such as sitting here and typing while expecting others of our and only our species half a world away to understand it, is truly remarkable and perhaps some of it does deserve the unique term "morality".

The question I'd pose is this: What about human action is unique to our own species?  I'm not talking here about results -- cities, the Internet, etc., but why we are able to construct such things when chimps and dogs cannot.  There is obviously a qualitative difference perhaps beyond the quantitative, but does that quality depend on quantity (brain size & complexity), or is it some ineffable, mysterious "value added" phenomenon without definable cause?  As an atheist I reject the latter.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 27, 2013 at 9:26am


See my prior reply to Ted, immediately below.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 27, 2013 at 9:24am


You asked, "But if there is some "other" going on, a more-ness in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts, what is it?"

I'd like to ask a favor: let's not interject words into my mouth . . . it only serves to obstruct the discussion.

I've already addressed most of the questions you're asking. And I quote:

The answer is not brain size or mass. The answer is mental abilities.

We have advanced intelligence. Animals don't. You and I are in different parts of the world, engaged in an intellectual discussion about morality and whether or not it is appropriate to ascribe such to animals. Need I say more?

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 26, 2013 at 8:35pm

Finally: To basically summarize most of my readings and references.

It appears according to much research that our morality and moral responses do not come from the Higher Levels of the Brain, but from the lower regions and structures. 

Essentially, many of our responses of morality are still primitive, regardless of the size of the brain, regardless of our education.  It still comes predominantly from the Emotional centers of the brain or the structures associated with the Limbic System and upper brain stem structures.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 26, 2013 at 8:22pm

And Wait, I have more!????

"In the last decade, neuroscientists and psychologists have produced a substantial body of empirical evidence which challenges established views of morality and rationality. This evidence may be incompatible with the central methodology in practical ethics which involves putting weight on intuitions in ethical reflection (Rawls 1951, 1972; Daniels 1996)."

Yes, Ethics as we knew it is a load of Bull.

Times are changing. 

More from:

"Employing neuroimaging and psychological experiments, Haidt (2001), Hauser (2006) and others have documented unconscious influences on moral judgement with little input from consciousness. In one influential study, Greene et al. (2001) used fMRI to study the neural correlates of responses to moral dilemmas, showing that subjects who responded in a non-utilitarian manner exhibited strong activation in brain areas associated with emotion"

Note that "Associated with Emotion", ah yes, as I've mentioned before, predominantly the Limbic System and it's mass of associated Mirror Neurons, which reflect the emotions of others around us.  We map the consciousness of others around us in our pre-frontal cortex, when we see those distressed or in pain, our mirror neurons kick in and we associate their pain with our own map and thus feel it ourselves.  This is the empathy reflex, most of us with normal brains exhibit.

Damage to the pre-frontal cortex or to the pathways connecting it to the limbic system and we will not be able to reflect the pain of others internally, thus we cannot feel empathy, we are now psychopaths.  Tumors, car accidents, autism have all been able to allow researchers to study this phenomenon.  Had it been known 200 years ago, likely Stalin could have been stopped from reaching a leadership position or may have been able to function in a non psychopathic state under medication.  

Ah, then we wouldn't have all those brain-dead Christians throwing Stalin at us, as if he represented Atheism.  LOL, though those brain-dead idiots are fun to argue with.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 26, 2013 at 7:59pm

Ahh Nurture, the cuddles closeness of a parent, or both parents, so very important in a child's life, the source of Trust, and the trusting neurotransmitters/modifying brain chemicals, such as Oxytocin.  Children in a loving warm relationship develop a nice chemical dopamine response cycle that if the relationship is broken, causes great anxiety and depression.

We have developed morals around these processes to try and protect the dopamine - oxytocin cycles.  So some morals are based on preserving close relationships or family values.

Confucius was big on keeping families together and promoted family values, half a millennium before Jesus Christ was born, yet Jesus himself denied family values and incited children to leave the family home.  So Christianity was never a family based religion, it never had morals based on keeping families together.



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