puzzled by morality
There seem to be endless discussions around a notion of morality, which Wikipedia tells me is:
the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong).
It’s not complicated, it’s not weird, and it’s not in the slightest bit indicative of a higher power. I’m puzzled that people are having so many repetitive and circular conversations, and invite readers to enlighten me on any key points I’m missing.
1. how to we evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’?
We can take one of two approaches to this (or a combination of the two):
- go with our instinctive response. This is developed mainly as a result of cultural indoctrination from society around us. We are social creatures and tend to go with the flow, follow the crowd and agree with those around us, in order to fit in and feel accepted. The attitudes that surround us from birth feel ‘natural’ and ‘correct’ in most instances and this informs the main part of our instinctive response. That’s obviously how something can be ‘good’ in one culture, and ‘bad’ in another.
- use our brains and gather evidence to evaluate the potential positive and negative outcomes of any decision or action. Weigh up the outcomes and make a decision based on what action causes least harm to ourselves and others.
- the combination option consists of following our instinctive response then inventing reasons to pretend logic has led us to the result with more positive outcomes.
2. how can humans broadly agree on what positive and negative outcomes are, without reference to a higher power?
How does any animal make decisions about positive and negative outcomes? Given that all successfully evolved entities have a finite lifespan and an obvious urge to regenerate through procreation, our desire for optimum survival conditions is our over-riding concern. For humans, our offspring thrive in peaceful, organised societies. The ability to understand how others feel has enabled us to settle in protective social groups – empathy is a strong feature of the breeding success of the human species. Hence the emergence of the popular Golden Rule throughout history – variations on ‘treat other people as you want to be treated’. This makes for more pleasant living conditions for everyone. Do I want to suffer? No. So why should I want anyone else to suffer?
3. can anything be absolutely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?
A ridiculous proposition. Christians frequently argue that this is the case, yet they all agree slavery is wrong (supported in the Bible), stoning adulterers is wrong (supported in the Bible), forcing raped women to marry their rapist is wrong (supported in the Bible), genocide is wrong (supported in the Bible), vandalism is wrong (supported in the Bible) and cursing trees is wrong (supported in the Bible). These actions are wrong because the negative outcomes outweigh the positive outcomes: they fly in the face of our natural empathy for our fellow human beings and trees. And over time, in spite of the occasionally clearly worded passage in their holy book, Christians have modified core beliefs to fit in with society’s concerns for less harmful treatment of everything in the world around us.
4. what about all the great minds that have written at length on this subject?
As I’ve stated before, people (and mainly men at that) writing in the information vacuums of past times need not be taken seriously. We do not need to constantly refer to speculative wisdom from the past when evidence today is staring us in the face. Shake off your dusty preconceptions and consider notions of morality from a simpler, natural point of view that is backed up with evidence, not ignorant and often superstitious speculation.
5. what can we do about this silly situation?
Next time someone says something like “All people have the capability of being moral because we are created in the image of God.” tell them they’re wrong and tell them why – we combine our indoctrinated sense of right and wrong with carefully weighed decision-making, using our naturally evolved empathy. Encourage them to avoid making blanket judgements on broad situations, just because their instinct, via indoctrination, tells them this makes sense. Above all, point out that science and logic clearly show how we have developed as animals. Believing you’re a special monkey who looks like a god and receives supernatural morality vibes is not only rather embarrassing, it can lead to poor decision-making with harmful consequences for others.