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.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved.

Views: 481


You need to be a member of Atheist Nexus to add comments!

Join Atheist Nexus

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 26, 2013 at 7:46pm

It's only Humans that consider Morality as High Level, essentially it is the same survival knowledge inflated to extremes and then conflated with human egotism into an Illusion of being something above group dynamics, when in fact it's not at all.

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.

We have seriously taken basic morality from instincts and learned survival skills and conflated with human egotism to produce a preposterously Erroneous concept of High Morality.

Its really not high at all.

It's all part of human delusional thinking.  

It's no different to the morality within a group of Meerkats, only we pretend ours is higher because of human Egotism.

Its time we got back to understanding the Basics.

BTW: No that site didn't have the information that I wanted, because my information comes from books that haven't got the excerpts available for posting and I haven't the time to type them out.

For empathy a good reference is V.S. Ramachandran's "The-Tell-Tale-Brain".  and Daniel Siegel's "MindSight". though here is another reference from Psych Central with regards to the connection between the Limbic System and Empathy, which without, we cannot have Altruism.


Here is how a brain tumor can make choices for humans that they would not normally make without it, showing that illness and brain trauma has more influence on our lives than our choices or moral decisions, introduce a brain tumor in the particular structure and morality flies out the window.

Excerpt: "Surprisingly, recent research suggests that conscious choice plays a smaller role in our actions than most people assume. In particular, it often comes after brain activity that initiates bodily movements, and many researchers conclude that the conscious choice does not cause the movement. That conclusion raises the disturbing questions of whether and how we can ever really be responsible for anything."


More on the neuroscience of morality:


What is morality? Where does it come from? And why do most of us heed its call most of the time? InBraintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. She describes the "neurobiological platform of bonding" that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a provocative genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality.

Moral values, Churchland argues, are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals--the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves--first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider "caring" circles. Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality."


We humans exaggerate the importance of morals, that are inherent and natural consequences of both the need for group cohesiveness and I forgot to mention Nurture, which from the lengthened nurture process for human offspring, such anxieties as separation anxiety have also shaped some of the human morality codes.

We are glorified apes who over-exaggerated our own morality basis.

One blow to the right place in the head and all morality could disappear in an individual.

It's all that fickle and entirely Subjective..

There's nothing Objective about Objective Morality!

Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 26, 2013 at 3:02pm

Brain mass doesn't necessarily imply complexity, though this seems to usually be the case.  You have posited a qualitative difference that defines human morality as opposed to the evolved responses of all other living things, and that's what I presume that we are talking about now.  So what are those qualities?  It's not enough just to assert that they exist, though such assertions can lead to productive discourse.  What would you say are the qualitative differences, not just quantitative by dint of neural complexity, but different in kind from what a bonobo experiences and does?  I'm not saying that I think that there are no differences, and by the way I'm still mostly agreeing with you.

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?  Rather than arguing over the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, we should be talking about whether it makes sense to presume that angels exist.  You have proposed that an "angel" in the form of "morality" exists.  I ask in honest curiosity what it is. 

Your OP opens with a wonderful picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-- someone who I admired above almost anyone else despite his religious rhetoric.  I think that Dr. King used religiosity pragmatically to move others toward what he considered a "moral" course -- one with which I agreed without the necessity of religious dogma.  So, were his actions "moral" or merely manipulative?  Or is it possible that they were both?


Comment by Atheist Exile on December 26, 2013 at 12:46pm

Sorry, Ted,

It's not just a quantitative difference. Several animals have bigger brains than we do, so the difference is decidedly qualitative. But it doesn't really matter. The only question here is: What is required to establish morality?

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

Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 26, 2013 at 11:10am


"Level of abstraction and sophistication" implies quantitative rather than qualitative difference, but point taken for purposes of this discussion.  We can legitimately ask, "How does human moral behavior differ from wolf (or chimp or sparrow) social interaction?" while understanding that both have similar underpinnings and even recognizably similar responses.  I think that it would be a mistake to impose a dichotomy unless it's for the purpose of understanding how human responses are different.

We humans have oddly large brains, and somehow the complexity that follows (a quantitative difference) imbues us with what we from our self-referential perspective take as morality.  I have no idea whether my dog sees my actions as "moral", but am pretty sure that she considers me an olfactory idiot, which I am.  She's capable of understanding the reality of smell in ways that I'm physically unable to comprehend, and I'm at least sometimes able to understand abstractions that she cannot.  Neither of us knows more than the other except within our specialized realms of perception.

Is it "moral" for her to kill and eat her runt puppy?  Is it "moral" for me to have her spayed?  These are questions that are legitimate only within our narrow band of pragmatic response to our environment.  We can talk until the cows come home about the form of the structure that we call morality, but we're really just talking about what works for us.  Again, that's basis for a legitimate conversation, but we should be careful when isolating ourselves and examining our peculiarities that we don't ignore or deny or attribute those differences to some imagined ineffable source.


Comment by Atheist Exile on December 26, 2013 at 9:56am

Yes, Ted, human morality bears some similarities to empathy and altruism in animals . . . mostly because they can be considered precursors to morality. But morality is qualitatively different than these precursors. It requires a level of abstraction and sophistication that only humans have been known to demonstrate. 

Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 26, 2013 at 9:29am


..."Note the last citation, above: it explicitly states that it's the PRECURSORS of human morality -- not morality itself -- that "can be traced to the behaviors of many other social animals".

The fact that many social animals instinctively maintain "group cohesion/unity for survival of the group in a world full of predators and rival groups" does not imply the involvement of morality at all. You can't conflate lower-level instincts and empathy into higher-level morality."...

I think that's a fair statement in this context in refutation of my and DD's positions (which I see as similar).  An analogy to what he and I said might be like if asked, "What is the origin of a house?" replying by pointing to a lumber yard.  If I understand you correctly, you're saying that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and this discussion is about the nature of that more-ness.

I still contend that what we consider human morality is not wholly different from what arises in other critters from similar precursors, but perhaps is substantially different enough, and interesting enough to us, to consider it a separate category -- ie.: what makes this particular structure a house rather than a barn.  And so for this discussion we are talking about the human flavored aspects -- the kitchens and bathrooms rather than the grain bins and horse stalls.  Fair enough?


Comment by Atheist Exile on December 26, 2013 at 7:20am

I don't mean to be a stickler here, DysDog, but when I read the links, I get a different picture than you apparently do. For instance, the link to the limbic system states that:

The limbic system is a set of evolutionarily primitive brain structures located on top of the brainstem and buried under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex.

I see nothing there that indicates the involvement of morality. Phrases such as "evolutionarily primitive brain structures" and "feelings of pleasure that are related to survival" are explicitly lower-level than morality.

Even in the text you cited, yourself, it's clear that morality is a human-ONLY concern. For instance: ". . . HUMAN moral behavior over the course of HUMAN evolution"; as well as ". . . the precursors of human morality can be traced to the behaviors of many other social animals".

Note the last citation, above: it explicitly states that it's the PRECURSORS of human morality -- not morality itself -- that "can be traced to the behaviors of many other social animals".

The fact that many social animals instinctively maintain "group cohesion/unity for survival of the group in a world full of predators and rival groups" does not imply the involvement of morality at all. You can't conflate lower-level instincts and empathy into higher-level morality.

Of course, I'm no expert . . . so if you can actually cite any reputable expert who explicitly attributes morality to animals other than humans, then I will, of course, reconsider.

The wiki you cited on the evolution of morality, explicitly states that:

Though animals may not possess moral behavior, all social animals have had to modify or restrain their behaviors for group living to be worthwhile.

How clear do you need it to be?

Also from the same wiki:

Highly social mammals such as primates and elephants have been known to exhibit traits that were once thought to be uniquely human, like empathy and altruism.

Empathy and altruism might be precursors to morality but they are NOT morality itself.

The CSU link you provided, about the neural bases for empathy, don't even mention morals or ethics (or any derivative words)!

Absolutely NOTHING you've cited gives any indication that animals (other than humans) have morality in any shape or form. 

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 25, 2013 at 6:32pm

Here are some references that may help understand my view of Empathy.

"Limbic resonance is the theory that the capacity for sharing deep emotional states arises from the limbic system of the brain"


Here is a very good reference on the Neural Basis For Empathy From Charles Sturt University:

On Morality: "The evolution of morality refers to the emergence of human moral behavior over the course of human evolution.  Morality can be defined as a system of ideas about right and wrong conduct. In everyday life, morality is typically associated with human behavior and not much thought is given to the social conducts of other creatures. The emerging fields of evolutionary biology and in particular sociobiology have argued that, though human social behaviors are complex, the precursors of human morality can be traced to the behaviors of many other social animals. "


Which is essentially what my posts have covered: 

Many philosophers have been publishing books on what they see as the complexity of the Evolution of Morality, such as:

Yet, as you can see in my posts: The Evolution of Morality is extremely simple to explain when you realize it is simply about maintaining group cohesion/unity for survival of the group in a world full of predators and rival groups.  Those groups that did not develop such systems of morality, did not survive and were either eaten by predators, captured or killed by rival groups that did maintain group unity, which gave the group greater strength for survival.

Overall, it is far simpler than many perceive.

Religion does not want to believe that the evolution of morality is so simplistic, because it utterly destroys their attributing morality to God.

Thus they ave deliberately obfuscated morality, to make it appear more complex than it truly is.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 25, 2013 at 6:11pm

Well, for starters, with definitions, Morality: Is actually a grey concept, no dictionary has any clear cut definition apart from generally accepted teachings of good or bad character traits. The term changes in meaning from culture to culture. The only generally accepted historical morality is the two I've pointed out as those which cause group disunity and thus weaken a group's cohesion.

Those disunity influences, could also include quarreling which stealing and mistreating your fellow group members can start, so anything that causes quarreling would weaken a group and make them vulnerable to attacks from enemies and prey.  Modern wars (political, social, cultural or countries) often employ such tactics as creating conflict within the opposition's ranks to weaken their defenses.  So to strengthen your group's defenses, you devise a morality framework which forbids such disunity influences.  It is thus Wrong to Kill, Injure, Annoy or Steal From your fellow group members.  You must treat your fellow group members with the same respect that you would enjoy receiving.

So in that disunity avoidance scenario, I've pretty much summed up all the rules that most societies accept essential Morality.

I suppose instead of the term Empathy (sensing the feelings of others through facial or body signals), I should have added Altruism, as Empathy is a function of our brain (mirror neurons) that most of us have as an innate quality except those of us with damage to this system from injury, disease or as some forms of autism, where the patient cannot mimic and thus sense the emotions of others.

The combination of natural empathy and lessons from being nurtured, in combination, appears to create what we call Altruism. Where people go out of their way to nurture others their empathy circuits sense that they are troubled.

Adults who did not receive nurture in their childhood, appear to lack empathy and are less altruistic towards their fellow humans.   

Empathy is a basic brain function almost all of us possess.

Altruism comes from a combination of this natural empathy, plus environmental influences in our lives.

Hope this makes it a little clearer.

Neurology has determined that Empathy is innate, a function of the Limbic system.

Psychopaths often have damage to the limbic system connections.

Such as Stalin are examples of such a damaged brain, possibly a mild form of autism, which exposes itself as psychopathy.  Such damage/autism appears to be common, yet not many make it to such positions of power, though the strive for power is part of their range of symptoms.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 25, 2013 at 8:54am

I think my main disagreement with you, DysDOG, is terminology. I get your ideas but think you're being loose with definitions . . . which makes it difficult to be sure what you really mean. I understand the gist of your arguments, though, and I think I agree with you.

© 2018   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: The Nexus Group.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service