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


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.


7 Responses to The True Origins of Morality

  1. jasondegray says:

    If you overesteem great men,
    people become powerless.
    If you overvalue possessions,
    people begin to steal.
    —Tao te Ching Ch. 3

    Seems to me the same morals are prevalent throughout all cultures. However, how do you account for people like thieves, who know what it’s like to be harmed but harm others anyway? Do they lack empathy? Or is their selfishness overriding their empathy?

  2. This post got a bit jumbled while I was writing it. It was suppoed to be more about how we know or feel right & wrong rather than why we do. I’d say that some people have less empathy than others and some are more selfish. Most people know its wrong to steal but some don’t care how their victims feel, this could be down to a disconnect from the consequences to their victims (‘they’re insured’ or ‘they can afford it more than me’) stopping empathy from overrinding their selfishness. Most criminals do not feel empathy toward their victims, otherwise they would find it more difficult to commit their crimes, as has been seen by the restorative justice scheme in Northern Ireland.

    • cgosling says:

      Congratulations! Many good posts. I’m slowly getting caught up on them.

  3. Allallt says:

    I write a lot on morality, and I touch on this exactly issue in one or two places (with a slightly greater focus on evolution of traits like empathy).
    Seeing a different angle on it is quite interesting.
    As food for thought, if you define morality robustly – i.e. as something like “actions that higher and lower the well being of conscious animals” (inspired by The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris) in stead of the more tenuous “what we ought to do” (that is often the argument from theists) do you think you can get a more objective stance?

    I have two posts that you might find interesting in thinking about that question:

    • Thanks for the feedback, glad to hear you’re a fan of Sam Harris.
      I’ll have a look at those 2 from you.
      I’ve never been completely comfortable with the idea of ‘fixing’ morality independent of history and thus condemning so many apparantly ‘righteous’ historical figures due to their questionable (by today’s standards) morality. I hope you enjoyed it, I’ll try and get some more out soon.

  4. I am fairly religious, I go to church every Sunday and believe in god, but I strongly agree that religion has almost nothing to do with morality. The majority of state crimes from the beginning of time have been committed in the names of religions. One danger of religion, like government, is its threat to use irresistible force and power to inflict horrible punishments on those who do not follow and to reward followers with other wordly happiness. This power to influence followers is just as dangerous for religions as it is for states. This to me leads people like Santorum who are in favor of giving massive buisinesses like billion dollar insurance companies and healthcare organizations the same protections as churches simply becaue they are called Baptist or Catholic, or St “sombody’s” hospital, rehab, hiway, hotel, or doctor’s office. These are not “establishments of religion” as intended by the founders in the first admendment. Their primary focus is to make money not to worship.

    It is a great post, very thought provoking and I enjoyed it. Thank You.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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