The True Origins of Morality

As an atheist, I am often accused of either having no morals or of using moral standards previously prescribed by god. That I have no morals at all cannot be true, everyone has a morality of their own. Even if a persons views differ from yours, that a person has things they will or will not do and things they believe are right or wrong gives them a morality. An immoral person has morals, although this morality is not something many of us would realise and would disagree with this person on many matters. However, this first point is merely semantics, we all know what is really meant by morality. A base of views on what is right or wrong that, while the details may vary between individuals, are generally agreed between most members of a society. So what about the second point? Do I have a moral standard that was previously prescribed by god? I certainly have a moral compass which points in the same direction on many issues as would one belonging to a Christian (or most other religions). That two people agree on a decision has little to do with religious law or even (in my opinion) fundamental truths about good and evil. I believe there are several mechanisms inherent within our minds that tell us what feels right. People often do things that they know to be wrong, why? Actions that we know to be wrong are rarely carried out without both clear benefits and lack of reprisal, yet even with these in place, most people would still resist any temptations they may feel. Is this because of religion convictions or is there another psychological mechanism at work here? I will do my best to explain my thoughts on these mechanisms in the following words.

  • Empathy

Empathy is a character trait that, although present to a degree in many animals, is uniquely powerful in humans. Our ability to appreciate both the pain and happiness of others, not only in our own social group but also outside, has given us social powers not available to any other animal. Knowing how others feel and being able to react accordingly gives us an advantage in being able to judge our actions from the point of view of other people.

By knowing what it feels like to be stolen from, I can have some idea what a victim of my theft may feel like, this will in turn affect my choice of actions and may persuade me from stealing. Clearly real world situations are far more complex than this but the principle remains. Also, our ability to feel a version of the emotions our relatives are feeling (and for them to feel ours) makes it much easier to reassure or encourage them, strengthening our social bonds and enhancing our ability to work together.

  • Anticipation

The ability of being able to predict the future with any degree of accuracy is unique to humans. A dog may be able to learn what happens when I put my boots on (its time for a walk) or a bear may know when there are likely to be salmon swimming upstream but these are learnt responses to repeating stimuli rather than the sort of anticipation I refer to here. Foreseeing the possibility of being caught in a criminal act (or even being caught following a police investigation) is something that only we can do.

Knowing that we should not indulge our child’s every whim but should show restraint and try to teach them patience is an example of a combination of these first two traits. Our empathy tells us the child is unhappy yet our ability to anticipate tells us that the child will be happier in the long-term once they have learnt that they cannot have everything they want immediately. In a more negative sense, knowing how a neighbouring tribe may feel if their religious symbols are desecrated in an act of war may make me more likely to do it if my intent is to inflict as much harm as possible, even if those religious symbols are worth nothing to me in material terms.

  • Selfishness

The first and most obvious cause of a person’s actions is selfishness. There is the obvious, outward selfishness of a person unwilling to share his food or refusing to give money to charity. These character traits would not be described as good by most people, indeed the majority of us will have left these behaviours behind in childhood. In adulthood much of this outward selfishness can become tempered by our knowledge of how others will feel about our behaviour (empathy) and how this will in turn affect our relationships with them in the future (anticipation). We may justify our selfish actions (‘I don’t give to the homeless because they’ll spend it on drugs’) or exaggerate our unselfish ones (wearing a charity badge) but both of these have the same starting point, selfishness. What benefits one’s family, friend and loved ones can also be seen as a selfish cause, depending on the closeness of the relationship and the level of personal sacrifice involved.

There is a level of selfishness involved in almost all actions, even if not immediately apparent. Our previously discussed qualities of empathy and anticipation tell us that even an anonymous gift to charity has a selfish outcome, the knowledge of the happiness being provided to someone in need. The three work in a circular way, back round to the start with a diminution of strength at each switch. If I send a friend a card, I anticipate he will be happy & grateful (empathy), this makes me glad (selfish), I also anticipate there may be a return card and so on.

How do these relate to morals?

The moral right or wrong we all feel have a basis in the reasons for the actions given above. We are all able to empathise with both the maker and receiver of any action. We know that theft is wrong because we have an idea of what it may be like to be stolen from. Mitigating circumstances may be taken into account (such as a starving woman stealing food to feed her children) and this will affect the punishment given by a court. Even with mitigating circumstances, immoral acts cannot be allowed to continue unchecked because we are able to anticipate the effects increasing the frequency of these acts may have (if everyone who was hungry was allowed to steal food there would be no incentive to grow it).

Why do we have different moral standards?

Once a moral code has been established in law (either secular or religious) it has been given a level of permanence not applicable to most other parts of cultural life. Tastes and fashions change as technology advances, once hardline or leftfield views gradually move from the edge to the centre and back again in politics and the media, tolerance of difference waxes and wanes with the zeitgeist. Laws established in a secular court or parliament can be changed but are usually well behind the current feeling of the populace. Religious laws are set permanently for all time (apart from some eg. usury in christian cultures) and as they are supposedly given by god must always be more important than what feels right.

Religious taboos around food are good examples of this; shellfish is likely to give one food poisoning if not freshly prepared and in a hot country the window for fresh consumption can be quite short so stopping members of your tribe from consuming them is a good way to improve their health. In the modern world where we understand the causes of food poisoning and have much better sanitation, this law is no longer necessary and the fact that most of the world has learnt how to prepare and eat prawns safely seems reason enough to abolish the laws against their consumption.

Condemning a person for being a practising homosexual or using contraception may well have made sense in the world where the religious law was originally conceived, a world where procreation and population increase was important to the survival of the tribe or clan. It makes no sense now, in an overpopulated world where parents need to put far more resources into the support of each child until a much older age and a couple (of any sexual mixing) participating in non-procreational sexual activity purely for their own pleasure is seen by most people as a positive thing for their relationship.

Adultery is still seen by most people as an immoral act because there is a clear victim who may be negatively affected without having any obvious or immediate choice. However, the old days where a spouse was seen as a possession are past and while we may not approve of the behaviour we, as a society, have deemed it to be not punishable as a criminal act (although still clear grounds for divorce).

As the world developed materially and economically at differing rates around the globe, so too the rates of moral development differed. In the years since the industrialisation of the west we have seen immigration and emigration throughout the globe, often followed by the friction of differing cultural moral standards, each with their own righteousness. Worldwide mass media has highlighted these differences without the viewer having to actually visit the places in question. Without considering how relevant a person’s cultural practises may be in the place they developed, many dismiss them as ‘barbaric’, ‘oppressive’ or ‘decadent’. However, as many of these are due to religious reasons they cannot be changed for fear of undermining the cultural history of the people to which they pertain (eg. headscarves, circumcision). It remains to be seen if the more moderate religious leaders will be able to hold back the tide of radicalisation and convince their flock to follow the spirit rather than the letter of their religious laws or if the world will continue its current trend of dividing into devout and apathetic.

We know scientifically that there have been people on earth for many thousands of years before any universal religious laws were written down. Do modern orthodox Jews really believe that a small band of shellfish eating hunter-gatherers in Northern Europe 8,000 years ago must have displeased yahweh with their unholy diet? Despite what you may hear now, many people across Europe in the early twentieth century thought there was a ‘Jewish Question’, would Pope Urban II have approved of Hitler’s ‘final solution’? We all cringe at the brutality shown by many aspects of British rule during the colonial period, yet these actions were often not condemned at the time. If one truly believes that sacrificing a child will ensure the health of one’s family, what is the moral course of action? What we now know has affected our answers to many moral dilemmas which in days gone by had different answers. Religion provides not the unchanging morality with which to answer the questions of how we should live our lives, religion is the barrier we need to cross in order that we may enable our knowledge and reason to show us the appropriate current morality necessary for societal harmony in these rapidly changing, turbulent times.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

I know I should have expanded on a number of points made and it seems a bit jumbled but at nearly 2000 words it’s getting too long for a single post, I may discuss in more depth some of the points in later posts.

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Why I don’t wear a poppy

This will make me unpopular but here goes:

Wearing a poppy is supposed to signify your respect for those who have given their lives (or parts of their bodies) in armed conflicts, starting with the ‘Great War’ of the early twentieth century. It has since spread in its significance to encompass all wars (and more recently all nations), making it more relevent to the people of today. The soldiers who fought in those battles and wars were fighting and giving the ultimate sacrifice, their lives, so that we may benefit from the freedoms we currently enjoy. I am incredibly grateful to them, the world would be a far worse place without the selfless patriotism shown by generations of servicemen & women throughout history. The respect and reverence I feel toward them should not be questioned while reading this piece, it is about something very different.

In recent years, I have noticed increasing pressure on all high-profile public figures to wear a poppy. It is no longer a choice for anyone pictured in the media, from politicians to footballers, a poppy is now part of your uniform during the build up to Remembrance Sunday/11th November. Not wearing it is not an option unless you want to be roundly lambasted from all sides, judged by people who presume that not wearing a charitable symbol signifies your hatred for the country of your birth. I am told repeatedly how those men died for my freedom. What is this freedom if it does not include the right of choice over whether or not to wear a poppy? The wearing of a poppy has evolved from its original meaning (as stated above) to the modern symbol which appears to be used as a banner to proclaim your essential ‘goodness’, not wearing one is tantamount to having ‘Evil’ tattooed across your forehead.

The poppy appeal is a charity like many others. There are good reasons for giving to it, there are also good reasons for giving to others. Why should this one charity be singled out for universal donations at the expense of others? What business is it of anyone who and what I give money to? Why should I feel pressurised into donating? This is not how charity should be.

Charitable gifts should not be used to publicise your morality, they are a gift. A gift given to your chosen charity is to help with their cause. A donation is a one-way transaction, it is its own reward. If it is given openly, for all to see, it proves nothing. Anonymous philanthropy is the only morally correct form. That is not to say that one cannot do good when one’s name is connected with a charity but it does mean that the donor is also there to receive a benefit from the transaction. It is no longer a true donation, the donor is buying moral capital by paying for other people’s lives to be improved. Not all bad but certainly not all good.

My charitable donations are a private, not public matter. My choice of whether to donate and how much is of no concern to anyone but me.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

Students should be grateful for what they’ve got

If you were offered the chance to make a no-risk, high-gain, long-term investment, would you? Here are the terms:

  1. No payment up front, someone else will pay the initial fees, you will be billed on account at a very favourable interest rate (far better than you could even hope to get from a bank) and are guaranteed to have no real-term increase in the cost of your initial investment.
  2. You only have to settle the account after the investment has paid off and is generating an income. In fact this investment will not only pay for itself, it will (if it pays off) give you a raised income for the rest of your working life.
  3. If your investment does not work, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay anything at all. All the risk is being taken by other people on this one.
  4. If, after 30 years, you still haven’t paid off the cost of your investment, don’t worry. It will all be written off and you will be debt free with all the benefits of your investment your to take.

I wish I could get a deal like this from my ISA.

This, then is what all the student protests are about. They feel that the investments should just be given out freely to everyone who wants one. That may sound fair to you but is it not right that those students who go on to have high earning careers pay back some of the capital invested in them by the state? After all, is it not them who will see the most benefit from their investment? Nobody is seriously suggesting that all students will have to pay back £27,000 for their 3 years, only those for whom their time at university has been productive and beneficial to their career. Even with a degree, many students would struggle to get a job paying more than the £21,000 a year cut-off with no experience in their chosen sector, meaning they would be paying back precisely nothing. Yeah, really expensive.

 

Lets debunk some myths:

  • What about students from poorer backgrounds who can’t afford the fees?

 As stated above, they won’t have to pay them until they are earning enough to be able to start the repayments. Even once they reach the £21,000 starting point for repayments, the amount being paid back will be tiny, nowhere near enough to cover the full costs. Is paying back £1,000 a year until your early fifties such a huge expense when you will only be billed if you can afford it? Until now fees of over £3,000 a year have had to be paid up-front, surely that is more likely to put off poorer students than the proposed system?

  • What about all the students with rich parents?

 Won’t they have an advantage by being able to pay the fees early and become debt free younger? The current proposals are that early repayment will be possible but will cost you 5% more than the standard contributions taken from a monthly salary. So yes, they will but it will cost them even more, further contributing to the SLC (student loans company) and helping to cover the costs of graduates who have not earnt enough to pay back their fees.

 

The real tragedy of the new scheme has been the systematic mis-reporting taking place throughout the media world and the seeming inability of the so-called ‘future’ (god help us) to find out the truth for themselves. The facts are out there and I cannot see why or how anyone could have even the slightest problem with them, unless they are simply envious of the generation putting these plans in place, a generation who had free access to university. “They had it, why can’t we?” ‘They’ presumably being the MPs running the show. I’ll tell you why, too many people now go to university for the current taxation system to fund them. Hardly anyone went to university 30 years ago, certainly not anyone who wasn’t academically gifted. It must be considered a good thing that the aspirations of an entire generation of ‘working class’ children have been raised to such an extent that they now expect, and are indeed expected, to stay in education until the age of 21. However, the increased costs of educating these people, combined with the costs of supporting them and the loss of their economic input in the workplace between the ages of 16-21 have affected the treasury to an extent that it is no longer viable to keep the old system. A new revenue stream must be found. Although this need not necessarily be directly from the students themselves, if it was from other sources, it would still need to be paid in full by taxation. There’s no getting away from the cold, hard fact that governments have no money of their own. Almost all government funding comes from taxation of different forms, if the government pays for it, we all pay for it. Why should the users who benefit most from the service not pay a bit more than those who benefit less?

One of the positive outcomes proposals I can foresee is the renewal of interest in more academic degrees, especially science and engineering. Why would you pay £27,000 for a degree in ‘History of Art’ or ‘Media Studies’ if it is unlikely to help you in the workplace? There are more degrees awarded in Media Studies each year than there are total jobs in the media nationwide. If you go on to a successful career in another sector your degree costs will still have to be paid back, it must be a better option to choose a degree that endows you with easily transferable skills. True, all degrees give you a certain level of ‘life skills’ that can help you in any job, all the more reason then to ensure your high level of employability by getting as many skills as you can with your degree (assuming of course that your degree is not for a set pre-chosen career path such as medicine or law).

The fundamentals of this argument are that the costs of educating and supporting students throughout their university life will have to be paid by someone. Whether you feel the burden should be spread evenly across the taxpaying public (e.g. NHS) or if you feel the users and beneficiaries of the service should contribute to the costs they create (e.g. Transport infrastructure) is a matter of opinion, unlikely to be swayed by me. What many of the protesting students seem to have missed is the cause of the change in policy. Without having the privileges of university education available to all based on merit rather than family wealth, no change would be necessary. All modern teenagers should be grateful for the wealth of career choices available to them, choices not available during their parents education. You may not want to pay for yourself but don’t confuse having these fees with restricting access.

Remember, it’s a no-lose investment.

Thanks for Reading.

Rowan

All comments welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

Is there an alternative to Capitalism?

Am I the only one getting thoroughly sick and tired of the protesters in front of St Paul’s Cathedral? I get their point, they think life in a capitalist system is unfair and should be made more fair. Yeah great, any suggestions about what a better system than capitalism is? No? What a fucking surprise.

The Church of England is not, at least in principle, in favour of huge profits by either individuals or corporations (except themselves, they do have a large portfolio of stocks in the FTSE). When stopped by the police from entering the London Stock Exchange, the protesters decided to block the entrance to probably the only organisation in the local area not wholly obsessed with profit at any cost. A bit of a PR coup really, even if it was an accident, as the general public are more likely to care about the obstruction of a church of a god than a church of money. One major thing they seem to have overlooked (a fact which seems to be overlooked by most modern protesters) is the provision of a viable alternative.

In 2003 when many people marched throughout Europe to show their displeasure with the planned invasion of Iraq, the alternative was to not invade. Whatever your personal views on the invasion, not invading was always a valid option and was given as the chosen alternative by the protesters in that movement. In more recent times, many protests have been due to economic circumstances. From university tuition fees to public sector pensions, today’s protesters all seem to have the same message. “It’s not fair” and not much else other than to say that another way should be found. This is not an alternative, none of the major political parties have viable options due to the current hamstrung nature of the public purse, there simply isn’t enough money in the treasury for students or public sector employees to be given special treatment anymore. All that seems to come out of the current protest camps are a variety of ways of telling us “it’s not fair”, “it” being capitalism or at least life under a capitalist system. I have yet to hear anyone give a viable alternative or to even explain what they mean by “capitalism”. As far as I can make out, it was the removal of knowledge in the marketplace by obscuring the products for sale that caused much of the financial distress being seen now.

Imagine a farm produce wholesale marketplace. All the producers have their wares on show and you are free to barter with them for the prices you will be prepared to pay. You can see and touch the produce, you can tell the quality and know what it will be worth to you once purchased. However, as time goes by some producers start to pre-package their products, making it very difficult to tell the quality of the goods before purchase. Not only that but you cannot even open the box after purchase because you will be re-selling it on to another dealer with the eventual owner only knowing the quality when it is too late to do anything about it, you only have the word of the producer to go on for any knowledge as to the quality of the product. With no checks on the producers, is it any wonder this modern-day version of Jack’s magic beans economics failed? Whatever anyone tells you, this is not capitalism. Blocking the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand by making the marketplace opaque not only prevents free access to the markets by those who do not understand the jargon or etiquette of the stock exchange, it limits the scope of the free market system. Poor products will not sell well at a fish market, why should their stocks rise in the FTSE? True capitalism may be inherently unstable and volatile but as long as transparency is maintained, long-term rises in stocks with no worth (and slow falls in valuable stocks) will be kept to a minimum. It is not less capitalism that is the solution, it is more freedom, transparency and accountability in the marketplace that can return us to economic growth.

Whatever you hear the protesters say, we are all better off in many ways than our parents generation. They in turn were better off than their parents and so on. This is not only in terms of material consumer goods such as cars or televisions (although many of these, such as washing machines or dishwashers, could be said to have improved the lifestyles of their users) but also in terms of working hours and conditions (including paid holiday, much safer working practices and conditions, minimum wage etc), higher life expectancy both in terms of quantity and quality (retirees going on activity holidays would have been unheard of decades ago) and also in the education and freedom of career choice available to the modern school/university leaver. In the early part of the last century many men and indeed children worked in mines, dangerous factories and other industrial sites. Regardless of the education received at your local school, you where unable to choose a career, it was provided by the local works, you did what your father did, you were unskilled and could work nowhere else, hence the fear felt by many of these communities when the global market made many of these works unprofitable and left them out of work. Instead of seeing the opportunity provided by these closures, many sought in vain to stop them by protest, making the situation for their communities worse. Embracing the changes in the modern world and changing with it, rather than fighting to hold back the tide, is the only way forward today. We can all be better off by using the free market to better our own situations, trying to halt globalisation can only work against you, resulting in you been left behind those who have chosen to press forward into modernity.

The only examples of non-capitalist policies given by the current protesters that I have heard have included using co-operative banks or shopping at The John Lewis Partnership. These companies exist inside the capitalist system not outside and are subject to all the same forces, unless you force people to run companies in this way, many will not choose them. Given that many of these people seem to not be in full-time employment (or at least don’t have to go to a permanent place of work every weekday), they shop at John Lewis & Waitrose and use banks which are more expensive to the users than most on the high street, I presume they are not those most at risk from the ravages of this inhumane capitalist system. Without the modern economic booms of the late 1980s and early 2000s I doubt if many of them would be in a situation to afford to protest in this way.

The continual flow of population from states with restrictive economic policies to those with higher levels of economic freedom is evidence enough that living in these kind of nations is not popular with those who have no choice in the matter. From Cuba to the former Soviet Bloc to South-East Asia, the general populace have never been happy to live under repressive, far-left regimes. Fully socialist or communist states have never been (and can never be) maintained inside democratic systems, people will always want more freedom to choose.

Scandinavian countries so-called social-democractic polices are often touted as a kind of “3rd way” in between the extremes of capitalism and socialism. The results of their policies are plain for all to see: high GDP, high human development index scores and low Gini coefficient all sound almost too good to be true. There are however certain factors which have helped them (especially Norway & Sweden). Being generally sparsely populated, often mountainous and forested has given them easy access to sustainable timber, hydro-electric & geo-thermal power, iron-ore and other minerals. Fertile fishing grounds and the discovery of North Sea oil & gas when combined with their relatively low population have also helped boost their ability to fund large welfare states, resources that are simply not available in the levels required to most Western European states. Restrictive immigration policies (until recently) and a lack of former imperial colonies contributed to high levels of social homogeneity. This, combined with some of the freest movement of labour in Europe (hiring and firing is surprisingly easy for such ‘left-wing’ governments) has hindered the abuse of the welfare state so often seen in this country. Other than high tax rates and some nationalised industries, their economies are free-market based with emphasis on foreign exports of both natural resources and high-end technology. High levels of population density, a relative scarcity of natural resources and a pre-existing welfare dependency culture mean that these models cannot be copied into the UK wholesale and although there are aspects that could be adopted they would, despite their long-term benefits, be expensive to implement and would increase the expense of government borrowing in the short-term.

In both the long and short-term, I can see no viable alternative to free-market economic policy. It remains to be seen how much state intervention is necessary or desirable to maintain (or start) growth and prosperity while continuing our inevitable progress toward human health and happiness. My own feelings are that people and companies should be left to trade as best they can with as little government intervention as possible. Laws and policies that ensure free trade and equality of opportunity can, in my opinion, only ever be good but laws that restrict these freedoms should always be avoided.

“It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.”
 
“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
 
“There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.”
 
– Margaret Thatcher
 
 
Thanks for reading
 
Rowan
 
All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can
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