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 Dyslexic's DOG on December 25, 2013 at 6:10am

A lot of humanistic morality such as Empathy, comes from instincts of nurturing the young, the neurology of empathy and nurture are similar, neuro-transmitters and modifiers such as Oxytocin and dopamine are involved in nurture and the reward of doing a good job of providing nurture. Similar effects come into play when providing help through empathy, which also involves the limbic system.

So empathy is simply a byproduct of rearing the young for such a long period as apes and humans do. Since our mirror neurons produce copies of others emotions, which we detect through facial expressions and body language.

So we sense their hurt and joy and this mirror neuron transference affects most people in the same way as detecting those emotions in our own children, thus the nurture impulse kicks in and we want to help them.

So, empathy is a combination of brain structure responses (mirror neurons) and natural, genetic impulses that have become intrinsic in mammals that nurture young for long periods.

Essentially we have become slaves to our natural empathy impulses and empathy is not a product of learning morality, it is a product of the nature of extended nurture.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 24, 2013 at 4:47pm

Morality evolved from basic principles of living, so they are not just for humans, they exist in many animals that live in communities, meerkats, apes, prairy dogs, etc.
If you are a creature that is being hunted by predators, but you, yourself have also the ability to kill, and you rely on numbers to defeat those predators, such as early hominids, whose only defense was rock throwing, one person could not throw rocks fast enough to stop lions from attacking, but several humans can and possibly even stop and kill two or three lions as lionesses often hunted in groups.
These groups learned very early on, not to kill members of their group, as they required the group to work together and fight together for survival. Thus the origin of "You Should Not Kill Your Fellow Humans". or the biblical "Thou Shalt Not Kill".
Similar beginnings created other laws as to not steal or hurt your fellow group members, for the same reason, upsetting your fellow group members by taking from them or hurting them, may turn them against you and if lions attack, they may not defend you, or the act of upsetting fellow members can cause group disunity and affect the morale of the group and they are thus less cohesive and vulnerable to attack by predators or rival groups. Thus the rule "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself", which was given by Confucius, around 500 years before Jesus popped out of Mary.
Buddhism also arrived at exactly the same rule, about a century later.
In fact, as human morality evolved, such golden rules, you think of as being Objective Morality, pretty much surfaced in parallel, in many cultures around the planet.
The basic Objective Morals, were derived from basic group survival tactics, which became morals as humans no longer needed to ward off predators and rival groups of humans.
These morals would exist without religion, because they were so necessary for our survival.
So it all started from survival, now they exist for Social Harmony.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 10:03am

It's officially Christmas, here in the Philippines. Fireworks are going off everywhere, lighting up the sky in every direction. Filipinos are big on religious celebrations and secular ones too.

I know it's impolitic to say but, "Merry Christmas" anyway.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 10:00am


As I've described it, empathy and experience is all we need to develop morality. Many animals have empathy but do they have morality? Here's how defines morality . . .

noun, plural mo·ral·i·ties for 4–6.

1. conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.
2. moral quality or character.
3. virtue in sexual matters; chastity.
4. a doctrine or system of morals.
5. moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.
As you can see, morality does require a level of intelligence that only humans are known to have -- assuming we stick with the dictionary definition.
Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 24, 2013 at 9:16am

@Atheist Exile,

Indeed it does depend on how we define morality.  As you stated above, morality is what we say it is.  I don't see a "sense of fairness" as you put it, in other animals as qualitatively different from what we humans experience.  Perhaps we could define some threshold of capability above which we graduate it to "morality", but then we're describing attributes of ourselves rather than the phenomenon itself.  We're saying that this social driver of behavior is not morality in termites or dolphins or chimpanzees, but it is morality in humans because of our (presumably) much greater capacity for abstraction and prediction.  Fair enough, as long as we agree that we are discussing matters of degree rather than kind, and that where we draw the distinction along the spectrum of response is arbitrary.

We of course see our brand of social compassion as different, partly because it is, and mostly (I'll posit) because it's what is most familiar to us.  We know what we personally feel, and with some justification presume that others of our species feel similarly.  What we individually recognize as morality covers quite a broad range.  I imagine that Mr. Hitler saw himself as deeply moral, as did Mother Teresa.  If we accept morality as specifically human social response, then they were both right.

By the way -- if it's not clear so far, I agree with just about everything you said above.  But I think that we could talk about "human morality" or "elephant morality" or "dog morality" and still be talking about the same thing as it applies to different species and their specific responses to their social environments as applied through their specific capabilities.

Comment by Loren Miller on December 24, 2013 at 7:57am

Question: if humankind had not evolved empathy and morality, would homo sapiens have survived?  I tend to think not, as I see both as interrelated and as mechanisms which assist in the maintenance of the species against destruction, as much from internal as external forces.  As has been said many times, we are not the fastest or the strongest, so we had to be socially aware back at the beginning, or we would have been GONE.

I suspect that it was only later, where our numbers had grown, human civilizations were established and our survival was far more certain that people began to think that, in opposition to John Donne, that a man COULD be an island, entire of himself, and that things like morality and empathy were unnecessary.

My $0.02 worth.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 3:33am

@Ted Foureagles,

That depends on how you define morality. For instance, chimpanzees have a sense of fairness but I wouldn't call that morality. There's a clear difference in the level of abstraction capable by humans versus any other species. There's NO evidence that any other animal ponders the moral significance of abortion, euthanasia, organ transplants, genetic manipulations, veganism, etc.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 24, 2013 at 3:28am

@Dennis Michael Pennington,

I suspect you're right. Religious indoctrination is brain-washing. As many of us know, it's difficult to get out from under it. 

Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 23, 2013 at 5:31pm

Morality is a social construct -- not exclusively human.

Comment by Michael Penn on December 23, 2013 at 7:33am

"Not a very  satisfying answer?" I found it very moving, well thought out, and well put. I'm not sure how anyone could say it in a better way. To me you are showing that morality is evolving. What religion said about it is not. Possibly this is also why we hear so much crap out of the christian right today. They want to move forward and seem intelligent, but they cannot let go of what they think the bible says about the matter. Their circular reasoning is holding them back. I think many of them know this, but they do not know what to do about it.



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