Saturday, 8 February 2014

Morality Without God

I think by now all of my friends know that my main leisure pursuit is the online courses at Coursera. If you don't know me and stumbled across this blog by accident, I will give you the link, because it's absolutely fabulous:

Briefly, it's a site where free courses are offered by dozens of Universities around the world. There are lectures on video and links to free readings (you don't have to buy any books unless you want to).

When you start each course there's a very brief survey asking you why. I always answer "for life long learning", but there's another reason, which is not asked, and which I'm also rather pleased about.

To answer questions I've had for decades.

In this particular case, it has been answered very clearly, and allows me to consolidate, and more importantly understand my views on it.

The course is called Moralities of Everyday Life. I take every course offered in this area, because "why people do what they do" is probably my main interest in life, and a big part of it all, obviously, is morality.

So, it's an excellent course with an extremely engaging professor, and I am enjoying it immensely, but what I am taking away from it specifically is the answer to the question:

"Morality: is it nature or nurture?"

Well, we've all suspected, but now we KNOW, the answer is "Yes."

This particular course draws upon philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. Bear with me if you've studied this yourself, as I'm going to go over a few things here, because even if the subject matter is familiar, I have a point to make and I think these details in review are necessary.

In fact, this goes back to a blog I wrote some time ago about taboos. It is pretty clear to me that morality is divided between conscience, an innate sense of right and wrong, which obviously includes altruism, and those things which are taught, and which are effectively nothing more or less than taboos.

But it's also clear, that I got the taboos somewhat wrong. It's not that items on my list are not also now taboos, but that's not how some of them started out.

Now, all of this still remains a matter of opinion, and while I am revising my own previous thoughts on the subject, I'm sure there are others who won't, actually, or also those who never liked that list in the first place, and yippee, off we go on another round of discussion, yummy yummy.

And please note, the professor of this course did not divide it up this way. I did, based on his research. I could therefore be horribly wrong, but I don't think so.

What he offered was compelling evidence of those aspects of morality that many of us had a hunch were innate, studies on the morality of babies and other animals. Babies really do have a sense of right and wrong built right in. I have always believed this, in fact it's one reason why I've always maintained that I don't need religion or anyone telling me how to behave. It's there. It's the cricket on your shoulder. Of course, when this goes wrong, it goes very wrong.

The other category of morality, the taboos, are not built in. They are created and passed on through culture. We may agree on them, but we may not really know why.

It's not new to academics that morality is divided up. There are several categories, and the one we are most interested in here is known as Ethics of Divinity. This covers (among other things) the morality of sex and food. Yeah, food. Why these two together? It's all to do with the notion of "purity". And it's called Ethics of Divinity because it seems to be religious in origin. God said it was wrong, therefore it is wrong. But what makes it interesting is that it exists within the culture even among the non-believers, even long after the religion has gone.

The reason this happens is that on these issues we seem to need some sort of guidance, and even if we do not follow the religion that the rules arose in, we seem to accept some of its guidance on purity. It has seeped into our culture. When we talk about the "customs" of other people, this is really what we're talking about.

It seeps into language, it seeps into everything, and what was once a religious law becomes a cultural taboo.

Depending on your point of view then, the Ethics of Divinity are either 1) proof that we are special among the animals (animals, even the great apes don't seem to have these rule, while they do have plenty of innate morality, and these are not found in young children, they have to be taught) and that we need God to guide us, or 2) that these are in fact unnatural rules, which we could potentially discard, as they have no basis in logic.

This of course is where the idea arises among some religious people that atheists (or simply those who have a different belief system) are immoral, or even amoral.

But it's only one aspect of morality, and it's the aspect that has no obvious biological basis. It's purely cultural.

Going back to what the professor said then, he suggests that while the specific purity rules differ (dramatically, some examples are in total opposition when comparing cultures) they exist, in whatever form, as a "cultural solution to universal problems". I suppose we all know that, but it's very helpful to have it explained so succinctly.

To recap, when somebody asks this question: "Where do you get your morality from, if not God?" it's not enough to tell them that you can figure out right and wrong all by yourself. Because there are divisions of morality, categories of morality, and what you have figured out for yourself, without any help from God, is quite different from the categories of morality that they include within their religious belief system.

And you can actually reject those. That will make you immoral by their standards. And that's fine, because they are not your standards.

To explain this, if it's not 100% crystal clear, I'm going to use a hypothetical example, which definitely falls within "Ethics of Divinity", but I'm going to make it up, so that I'm not referring to any specific religion.

If this example it is wrong in Religion X to drink from anything that does not have a handle. No tumblers, no stem glasses, and no fruit jars. It must be a mug or a stein. If the handle breaks you must throw it away. This religious law dates back before written history, so nobody knows why it exists. Theories have been put forward that since the hands are dirty, the farther they are from the rim of the cup the better, but as adherents to this religion don't use a knife and fork to eat a sandwich, this could potentially be incorrect. Still, it's not allowed, and if you are caught with your hands round your mug instead of gripping the handle as in an Oktoberfest singalong, your mother will slap them, your colleagues at work will go "tsk, tsk" and stare, and your priest will ask you to scrub the temple steps as penance.

Having been taught this from an early age, you are utterly convinced it is immoral. You don't know why, but you just know it. You break the rules anyway (we only have/enforce rules if people might desire to break them) but you feel guilty about it, AND, being a hypocrite you chastize others for it.

But here's the thing. Despite that, and the fact that this is known to be religious in origin, and that the reason behind it is inscrutable, you still look down on others (non-believers) who shamelessly hold goblets. For no good reason whatsoever, you project out your own feelings and are prejudiced against those who don't share them.

It's the modern world and along comes pluralism and  religious tolerance. Because you live in a multi-cultural society, and a nice one (we'll just assume it's Canada or Denmark, or somewhere where niceness abounds) when you go into McDonalds they provide a little slip-on cardboard handle that you can ask for with your Coke. Which is very cool.

But you're not satisfied. You expect to be given one of these without having to ask. You feel awkward asking.

(TANGENT: Ask me about awkward. A friend booked an air ticket for me and being a bit of a joker he ordered me a Kosher meal. Actually he was only half joking. He recommended it as better food. He was right and I recommend ordering the Kosher meal if you have the chutzpah.... Anyway, they came to serve dinner and didn't know who the Kosher meal was for so the air hostess (shut up, I'm old) called out to the entire plane "WHO HAS THE KOSHER MEAL?" and I had to raise my hand. Tell me about awkward.)

Still, that's not enough. Some adherents demand that nobody is allowed to use handle-less drinking implements, and want them all banned.......

Of course, in the countries where Religion X was traditional for centuries, you couldn't find any cups without handles.They were neither made nor sold. But as you recall, people break rules. So some people were holding the cups round the other side anyway. They wanted to, and they saw no reason why not. They just kept quiet about it. This went on for a thousand years.

Then there was an Age of Reason. People started to question things, and one aspect of their culture (religion + long period of time = culture) they thought wasn't such a big deal was the cups. The rule wasn't cancelled, but a blind eye was turned to it. Visitors from other cultures were obviously perfectly good people (if not quite "like us") and with them came lots of imported goods. One way and another the requirement for a handle sort of fell by the wayside.

A group of the more conservative members of society decided enough was enough, this was a sign of a dangerous growing permissiveness. Where would it all lead to? Drinking chocolate milk straight out of the carton, that's where! Horror of horrors! Egads! Civilization would collapse.

So they began a movement to get back to fundamentals. To insist upon morality, the old way.

The general public couldn't really care less, so they laughed and left these people to it. But because the idea of it being immoral had seeped into the culture, they didn't fight it either. They just shrugged and before they knew where they were, the moral conservatives had got into government....

It's a silly example but this is exactly what happens when the "Ethics of Divinity" of one specific group are seen as morality. And what is really interesting is that these moral conservatives cherry pick their morality, and they usually emphasize the Ethics of Divinity and place them above other forms of morality.

Natural, built-in, innate ideas of right and wrong, or as I like to put it, real morality, are overlooked.

What is real morality? Objections to violence. Fairness. Honour. I'll come back to this in another blog, but the situation is clear. What is defined as morality when push comes to shove is quite often whatever the person in power decides it is. Because our hypothetical twisted moral conservatives are now killing people who drink from a wine glass. And if you think this is too far fetched, look at the world around you and see what people get killed for.


  1. This one is really giving me pause for thought - love it. It will spawn.

    1. You may enjoy my homework from last week:

  2. Definitely interesting; I don't, particularly, agree with some it but it is an excellent piece.