That Humanist

The Root of All Morality?
January 20, 2008, 9:33 pm
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After admitting that I’m an atheist (and humanist), I’m often asked “but what about morals?”  Morals are very important to all of us, and many believe that throwing out their religious-book-of-choice will throw out morality as well. 

A little reflection should rule this out.  There are many secular countries where the absence of a god does not result in a culture of chaos and iniquity—obviously a justice system, cultural norms and instincts can do the job just as well. The result may be different to what you may wish, but still stable.

I wonder why these people ask about morality in the absence of religion. The Edinburgh University Humanist Society has
an upcoming event on “Humanist Ethics for 21st century” in February, so I thought I’d start exploring this and other aspects of morality in a series of blog posts. In starting out, I’m left with a series of questions I hope to be able to answer one day:

  • Does removing religion from a society leave a gap that needs to be filled? Do we naturally feel the need to have a visible authority on the matter, traditionally handled by the priesthood? In promoting humanism, do we need to assuage any concerns about morality, and if so, how do we do this most effectively?
  • Do we understand enough about our natural moral instincts? For example, here’s what the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanist principles says about morality:
    Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction. If morality is intrinsic, I’d like to know more about it. What are our natural inclinations, and how do they differ across cultures? What are the evolutionary drivers for morality and what can science tell us?

In starting this quest, it’s probably worth defining just what morality is. My dictionary defines moral as:

concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character
concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society

Of course, the right and wrong leads me immediately to think about good and evil as portrayed in religious texts. Religious folk would leave the ultimate arbiter to an imagined god. Right and wrong, demands more. Who is the arbiter? This is why that second clause in the definition is so important to me: “considered right or acceptable in a particular society.” But then, is “good” simply relative?

Darn, another question to add to the list…


3 Comments so far
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There are other ways to define morality. A moral action can be the option that causes least suffering to the least amount of people. That would make it somewhat less subjective.

Comment by grammarking

This is a different notion of morality than I would have expected here. I’ve heard that morality is doing the right thing when no one is looking. What worries me in the definition are the “concerned with”s. Does someone who is moral wrestle with the issues of (someone’s notion of) right vs. wrong and choose when they can what is right? Or are they concerned with the principles of …

This latter phrasing worries me because you could be moral and be concerned with such principles but behave quite badly. The second “concerned with” strikes me the same way.

So your definition of morals implies nothing about action or behavior. Perhaps that is right – but it is too academic for my tastes.

Finally, I think that most people think that they are doing mostly the right thing. We have a huge capacity for justifying much of what we do. I would hate for this to be classified under “moral” behavior.

Comment by Daniel

Hi Daniel

I guess I wasn’t clear enough, but this is really getting to “doing the right thing when no one is looking.” What makes people do good? Some believe it’s authority from a religious text, while others believe it’s authority from people, and an innate sense of morality.

In a sense I’m trying to explore what makes us do good when no one is watching. You are spot on about the concept of principles. The current research into morality makes the difference between principles and intuitions. We often have intuitions about moral actions without recourse to some set of principles. Or vice versa. Interesting things happen when our principles and our intuitions don’t coincide on the same action.

I’m new to this – I hope future blog posts will look at some practical aspects of morality too. The theory is no good without it.

Comment by Jon Mountjoy

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