“If you don’t believe in god, then where do you get your morals from?”
It’s the elephant in the room. We can try to avoid it. We can pretend it doesn’t exist. We can tell ourselves “we’ve moved beyond god-bashing.” But in any discussion with traditional theists, if you can’t answer this question then you might as well ask for directions to the local NAMBLA office.
First, what do we mean by morals, and how are they different from ethics? These terms are often used interchangeably, and their meanings may be dependent on context. For now, let’s agree that “ethics” refers to a set of principles, or a logical framework for making decisions about how to behave under given circumstances, while “morals” refers to one’s personal convictions or beliefs about what is right or wrong. For example, a defense attorney may have a personal moral conviction that murder is wrong, but may also have a standard of professional ethics that requires mounting a vigorous defense of a client charged with murder.
Morals, like many human characteristics, vary from person to person. They have both a genetic or “nature” aspect and a learned or “nurture” aspect. They also can be organized hierarchically, similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, starting from the more essential moral traits that are required for species survival and building to more sophisticated moral questions that come into play once survival issues have been addressed.
At the base of the hierarchy, the “nature” aspect of morality is a function of biological evolution and survival. For example, most mammals have evolved in such a way that parents care for their offspring from birth until they are able to fend for themselves. Unlike some insects or reptiles which may produce hundreds or thousands of young per parent (who can “afford” to lose a fair number to predators without jeopardizing the species), most mammals produce only a handful or fewer of young per year. Since there are so few offspring per reproductive cycle and the offspring are relatively helpless, mammals have evolved strong parental attachment and nurturing behavior. In humans, this is expressed as the moral value of “motherly love”.
Our innate morality – the “nature” component – is built up from universal, evolutionarily successful traits such as parents caring for their young, close family members not interbreeding, and aversion to harmful foods. These behaviors have become instinctive because they facilitate propagation and survival of the species. Parents that don’t care for their children are less likely to be represented in the gene pool. Incest is considered taboo because of the increased incidence of genetic abnormalities in the resulting offspring.
Once the basic survival of the species has been addressed, the next level of the moral hierarchy is groups. As our species evolved from small packs of hunter gatherers to larger agrarian settlements, cities, and nation states our learned morality – the “nurture” component – has developed to accommodate the increased complexity of our resulting communities. Humans, like our primate relatives, are social animals. Our species has thrived because of our ability to form stable groups. Other primates have the brain power to manage tribes of 50 members or less, while our larger human brains facilitate relationships in groups of 150-200 members. The tribes that were successful in the earliest days of human evolution were the ones that practiced reciprocity, loyalty, and generosity within the tribe. A team of hunters that share their bounty will tend to do better over the long haul than a selfish lone-wolf hunter who has more than he can eat on good days but goes hungry on the days in between kills. Groups that transmit these learned behaviors to their children tend to be more successful than those that don’t.
Civilized society depends on shared rules and collective responsibility. Larger communities lead to specialization and interdependency, which require cooperation and trust. These are facilitated by teachable moral values of honesty, integrity, fairness, reciprocity, etc. These moral values are judged by their effectiveness. Someone who lies and cheats may achieve success in the short term, but will harm the community in which they operate over time.
Once the moral values essential to the survival of individuals and communities are established, moral development can advance to areas of personal or group preference. Some examples of these moral preferences include religious beliefs, family structure (arranged marriages versus romantic love), and capital punishment. Religions can be a type of community structure of their own, and we can study which types of rules and ethical structures have been most successful in preserving various religious communities. Strict authoritarian religious codes have survived for millennia, despite the encroachment of conflicting truth claims from modern science, although in evolutionary time scales modern science only appeared on the stage a few moments ago.
For those moral values that are a matter of preference, and not survival value, how do we go about deciding what is moral and what is immoral? We can go in one of two directions. We can look internally to what feels right, or is consistent with thoughtfully determined first principles. Or, we can look externally to follow the guidance and influence of family, respected peers, or established societal norms. Of course, it’s not really that simple. What “feels right” to us internally is likely to be a product of the familial and social environment in which we developed. And today’s societal norms will have been influenced by the reasoned first principles of leaders in the past.
So what can we use as first principles? Some possible choices include
- · Trust and follow authority
- · Maximize common good
- · Maximize personal gain
- · Minimize suffering
- · Maximize inherent worth and dignity of every person
Each of these has its pros and cons. Following authority requires you to have enough autonomy to make an informed decision regarding which of competing authorities to follow, and then expects you to abandon that autonomy from that point on. Maximizing the common good, or utilitarianism, runs into a problem if the greatest common good can be achieved by intense suffering on the part of a minority. Maximizing personal gain, the libertarian ideal, implies that the best of all possible worlds will result if each person is free to pursue their own selfish objectives. I don’t fully understand why that outcome is likely given our nature as social or tribal animals, and I don’t believe the record of history supports this premise, but many reasonable, intelligent people hold this view these days.
Personally, I am drawn to the inherent worth and dignity argument. It acknowledges that, while we may be responsible for our choices, none of us are fully responsible for our circumstances. None of us chose our parents, or their wealth, or their social connections. None of us chose our IQ, or our innate athletic prowess, or the shape of our noses, or our hairlines. All of us are products of our environments and our biology in ways that run too deep for any of us to fully grasp -- ways that include intangibles like work ethic. So none of us can claim any inherent superiority over anyone else, which leaves us all inherently equal in worth. And that feels right to me.
If we decide to follow external authority, we have a few options. As children, we have little choice but to follow the edicts of our parents. If we attend school, we can comply with school rules and policies. As adults, we can focus on compliance with city, state, and national laws and regulations, or we can choose to comply with the dictates of a chosen religion. As mentioned previously, some level of internal guidance is required to choose among competing external authorities, unless one is content to conform to the religion of one’s parents. And this is actually the most common method by which people arrive at membership in a particular religion.
So, where do we get our morals from? Our sense of what is right is a combination of behavior that is necessary for the species (such as parents caring for their young), supportive for groups (such as altruism and reciprocity), or elective for our personal well-being (such as feminism or GLBT rights.) Some values are genetically inherited, some are learned, and some are chosen. Some values can be evaluated in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and some values are a result of personal preferences which in turn are a product of our environments.
Now, back to the first part of the original question: “If you don’t believe in god, …” In my experience, people who start their questions about morality with that qualifier are operating on a set of assumptions or assertions that includes some or all of the following:
- · There is a god – a supernatural, all-powerful, all-knowing creator and sustainer of the universe
- · This god is concerned with human morality
- · This god has established a definitive code of human morality
- · This god communicates his/her/its moral code to humans
- · They (the questioners) believe in the existence of this god
- · They have established reliable communication with this god
- · Their own personal morals are based on communication received from this god
- · This god is monitoring their behavior and tracking their compliance with his/her/its moral code
- · They will be judged and rewarded after they are dead, based on their degree of compliance with this revealed moral code during their earthly lives
- · Anyone who does not believe in this god will be punished for this lack of belief after they are dead, regardless of how “nice” they may have been while alive.
Most of these assertions are highly subjective, and those who hold them tend to be resistant to any logical arguments or evidence to the contrary. Setting aside for now the assertions regarding the existence of a god and eternal punishment or reward in an afterlife, I would like to focus on the topic of how, exactly, people who think they get their morals from a god actually get their morals from a god.
What I observe is that people who claim to get their morals from a god have generally been raised by parents who instilled the idea of a god and this god’s rules into them from an early age. There are exceptions, of course, and some people are persuaded to adopt these beliefs as adults, under peer pressure from other like-minded adults. I observe that people receive these god-rules by hearing them from their parents as children, by hearing them from preachers and Sunday School teachers in church, and by reading about them in various sacred texts. In other words, people receive these god-rules from other people in much the same way as they learn about history, current events, restaurant menus, and any other way that people receive ideas and information about people, places, and things: from other people.
What I have yet to observe, either personally or via verifiable anecdote, are people receiving moral wisdom via direct voices in their head which are not their own. Such incidents have been recorded in ancient religious texts (the story of Abraham and Isaac comes to mind), but in modern times when people base their actions on voices they claim to be hearing in their heads we are more likely to have them locked up for observation than to hail them as a source of moral inspiration.
Another concern often raised by the traditionally religious is that without a scorekeeper god, humans would have no incentive to behave morally. This premise has several weaknesses. First, many of our moral tendencies (parental care, for example) are better explained as evolutionary survival mechanisms than as arbitrary rules to be followed. Second, many moral principles (such as reciprocity, aka “the golden rule”) have existed in all cultures and all recorded history and predate modern religions in general and the Abrahamic religions in particular. Finally, history provides little evidence that belief in a scorekeeper god inoculates people against bad behavior. For further information see: the crusades, the inquisition, witch burnings, holy wars, human slavery, Catholic priest pedophilia, abortion clinic bombings, and 9/11.
Finally, there is the picking-and-choosing problem. If you want to disapprove of homosexuality because of a specific biblical passage in Leviticus, fine, but then you also have to stone your disobedient children and put to death any woman who does not bleed properly on her wedding night. And if you don’t approve of human slavery, you sure as heck didn’t get that moral value from the bible.
To sum up: “If I don’t believe in god, where do I get my morals?” My morals are based on a combination of innate feelings based on evolutionary survival mechanisms, learned behavior based on the environment in which I was raised, and voluntarily chosen values based on first principles. In other words, I get my morals the same places you get yours. Unless you’re hearing voices.