Where My Morality Comes From

In the comments of the last post, I was asked where I thought my moral sense comes from. This is an attempt to untangle the threads.

Innate Morality

Human beings aren’t alone in displaying ethical behavior. Other animals with social groups larger than a family display behavior we’d consider ethically motivated if performed by a person. For example: helping unrelated suffering individuals (even of other species), ostracising those who steal food, reciprocating kindness, putting oneself in danger to draw predators away from others.

Human beings, like many other creatures, use social strategies for survival, and so are typical in having evolved systems of ethics to support those strategies.

So my morality is partly innate, a function of our evolutionary history.

Learned Morality

A lot of the process of growing up, is the process of learning morality. Learning right ethical behavior, learning to ignore one’s selfish desires, to be able to function in society.

I notice how we do this with our son. We teach him a mix of cultural ethics and genuine morality. The former are things that would be wrong to do, because we have made a rather arbitrary decision as a culture not to do it – such as belching loudly at the dinner table. The latter would be wrong under rational scrutiny – such as hitting someone when they don’t do what you want them to.

So my morality is partly taught, a function of the society and family I grew up in.

Rational Morality

But both previous sources could be wrong. I could have grown up in an evil family. And I do not think evolved behaviors are a reliable determiner of morality. So I need a rational way of determining what is right and wrong.

The core of morality, in both categories above, is the idea that I am a member of a community of other individuals. And I recognize that those other individuals are like me. From this follows something like the golden rule: that I should act to others, as I would have them act to me.

This idea is common to cultures and philosophies going right back to our earliest written artefacts. The form I use we could call arbitrary substitution: I make moral judgements on choices. The options in that choice affect a set of people. The moral choice is the one who’s affected parties I would least fear to be.

I also think this is the objectively correct basis. Because it seems to me to be a logical consequence of objectivity, which requires that my own consciousness is a non-privileged vantage point. Similarly for there to be any objective morality, its conclusions cannot depend on which affected party’s consciousness belongs to me, and therefore the moral choice is the one all affected parties would agree upon, if they were faced with being arbitrarily assigned to each others consciousness. There’s much more to say here, but I’ll gloss over it all and assume the conclusion for the purpose of this post.

This leads to a moral calculus and therefore, I think, to a form of utilitarianism (again, skipping several intermediate steps of reasoning). Morality is not about rules, but about consequences. There is no ethical rule that should not be broken in some situation, though that situation might have to be extraordinarily contrived to the point of fantasy.

So it is not absolutely immoral to kill someone, for example. When I say that murder is immoral I am saying that, in the vast vast majority of cases, killing someone is the immoral option. In the same way, war is immoral, yet in some cases I believe it can be the morally correct choice.

There are moral decisions which are finely balanced, or carried out with incomplete knowledge of the consequences, or morally neutral. I think it is only utilitarianism that can rationally make sense of how we make difficult ethical decisions in real life[1].

So this is a rational basis, but choosing an action based on a moral calculation would be far too time consuming, and unnecessarily complex in most situations.

So in most cases I rely on heuristics that short cut the moral calculation and (hopefully) give the correct answer.

But it is important to fall back on a more complete basis when a situation is not clear, or when someone calls into question a rule. My cultural and innate baggage may rarely go unchallenged, since it is incorporated into my moral heuristics. But when a heuristic is bought to my attention, I at least have a basis on which to reconsider it. And if on reconsideration I find it not to be useful for making the right moral choice, I am obliged to stop using it.

[1] Where utilitarianism falters is in its account of ethical or moral judgements that aren’t weighed up rationally. As I go on to say, I operate on a rules (heuristic) basis most of the time, and deontological accounts of morality map onto this better. But ultimately I think rule-based ethics are adequately accounted for as convenience approximations of utilitarian calculations, whereas deontological approaches strain more when faced with moral judgements under conflicting rules.



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17 responses to “Where My Morality Comes From

  1. Ian,

    Thanks, but, alas, I still don’t understand what you deem to be the source of your moral values.

    In the first section you say it’s “partly innate,” and “a function of evolutionary history.” Later you say, it’s “the idea that you a member of a community of individuals” that is the core of both your “innate” and “learned” morality. But how do morals flow from this core idea if atheism is true? If you’ve explained that in this post, I need more help finding it.

  2. Ian

    Well, I’m not sure which bit you didn’t get, and it is a bit long to say the same thing again in different terms. Perhaps you have a different idea of what morality that you’re reading into my post.

  3. Nice post, Ian. One problem I’ve had with Atheists is that they discuss things in terms of philosophy (or whatever category morals falls into – somewhere between that and sociology I assume).

    So not having studied the topics, I find the ideas a bit muddled. But you explained it well. I tend to be too literal in my thinking to get it.

    The “golden rule” is my personal favorite; although I find that some situations calls for just a bit more. For example, some dog lovers don’t seem to understand why joggers don’t want some stranger’s dog slobbering all over them. That requires somewhat more objective soul searching.

    Also this came to mind when I read about the “murder” exception; in Massachusetts recently we had to vote on whether doctors had the right to end someone’s life. I can tell you I stood in that voting booth a long time, staring at the question. The measure failed to pass by a slim margin.

  4. Ian, I understood what you said about morality. What I didn’t understand was what you consider its source. In other words, you’ve been much more clear about the way you think about morality than you have been about how you (or anyone else who thinks similarly) came to think about it in that way. I tried to demonstrate for you above why the little explanation you did give seemed self-contradictory. I hasten to add that I’m not accusing you of being self-contradictory – I just don’t see the root of your moral outlook as clearly as I see its trunk, branches, and fruit.

  5. Ian

    I’ve given three sources: evolution, culture and reason. Evolution of social cooperation requires ethical standards, culture has a mixed bag of ad-hoc arbitrary ethics and ethics that fall into the other categories, and morality is a rational consequence of the assumption of objective reality. The first two we inherit genetically and by learning. Given that religious morality is learned form cultural artefacts (books, including scripture, other believers, parents, etc) it sits in that group. But without a rational basis, both inherited forms are prone to error. Which is why, I think, you often flounder morally, because you are not willing to base your morality on anything more reasonable than cultural inheritance.

  6. Ian

    Thanks Amelie, The issue of the right to die is an important one, I think. I’m pretty clear that we should have the right to die when we choose. But I also recognize that legal right would make it much easier to shorten someone else’s life, by emotional pressure, for example. So I’d like the see the law changed, if it could be done in a safeguarding way. In the UK it is illegal to assist a suicide. But clarification a couple of years ago indicated that people wouldn’t be prosecuted if they assisted someone who’d made a public, clear and long-standing decision to end their life. Unfortunately, this still makes it impossible to get medical help with that, so the botched suicides and unnecessarily unpleasant methods still abound. That, and the fact that in the UK you could be prosecuted for putting up a website or publishing a book describing how not to botch it. Its not a good solution.

  7. Ian, you don’t seem to understand the roots of your own morality; I don’t see how you propose to understand mine.

    You didn’t ask my view (you just chose to mock it as if you understood it), but I’ll offer it just the same. I believe that a sense of morality – namely, conscience – is innate and God-given. Further, I believe that the health, and therefore the reliability, of conscience is a function of how we use it. Our use consists of moral judgments we make and actions we take – whether consistent with or in violation of conscience. The more we act consistent with conscience the more reliable it becomes, and the more we violate conscience the more unreliable it becomes. This usage includes things we learn from our families, from reading (including Scripture, but also, sadly, could include pornography), and other interaction with our environment (culture). Like any set of scales that require periodic calibration, the conscience is tuned through appeal to its Creator. Thus conscience is subject to supernatural effect. Failure to calibrate is dereliction of proper maintenance. One of the particularly negative aspects of such omission is an increasing blindness to the need for maintenance.

    I believe that you are using your God-given conscience without giving thanks for it. Thus you’ve divorced it from its root. That doesn’t mean it’s utterly unreliable in anything it says, but it does mean that it is impaired. One aspect of this impairment is your quickness to judgment with a minimum of evidence and a maximum of assumption. I’ve experienced this personally on more than one occasion. The apostle Paul had a very strong conscience when he was hunting down Christians before his conversion to Christ. Thus we see that a strong conscience does not necessarily equate to a reliable conscience.

    Lastly, I would say that “reliable” in this context means consistent with what God thinks. For we are all subjective; only He is objective. All our attempts at objectivity are attempts to see things as He sees them. And such attempts are commendable.

  8. Ian

    you just chose to mock it as if you understood it

    I did understand it, Mike.

    You seem to think I’ve no idea what you believe. Of course you might surprise me, but so far you haven’t.

    I understand because I’ve been there. Not in the specifics, of course, but let’s not overestimate how much the details matter.

    I wasn’t mocking you, either, I was telling you how I thought your morality is generated and why it has problems. In the 1000 words of response to your original question, this took up one sentence. In your response the first sentence and the penultimate paragraph did the same for me. I think you need to get a sense of proportion.

    As for mentioning your morality at all, you arrived on this blog arguing against gay rights, for me one of the clearest moral issues. So I’m not going to suddenly give you a pass when you claim to have the moral high-ground or a better understanding of what morality means. This isn’t a neutral issue: real people’s lives are being adversely affected by the immorality of the bible. Your lack of rational moral basis does real harm.

    The more we act consistent with conscience the more reliable it becomes

    Or just more reinforced: you get better at acting in accordance with your cultural baggage and less motivated to look at it critically.

  9. Ian,

    Let’s just leave it that I still don’t see an explanation here for how your morality came to be if atheism is true, and that I don’t think you understand my moral outlook nearly as well as you think you do.

    As for who stands on the higher moral ground on the subject of homosexuality, I don’t concede that to you for a moment – regardless of how passionately you may feel otherwise. To claim that you’re more moral than those who wrote the Bible is…well, no sense going over that again.

    Thanks for the interaction you’ve given me on your blog. I think it best for me to move on. I hope you’ll remember the things I’ve said, and recall them in a time when you become more open-minded


  10. Ian

    I don’t think you understand my moral outlook nearly as well as you think you do

    Then tell me where I’m wrong. Because I thought you just explained it, and your explanation seemed clear and unsurprising to me. If you think I’m missing something then you could ask me to check my understanding, or add any additional details you think are relevant.

    This isn’t a guessing game. My feeling is you’ve been very straightforward and open on this blog about what you believe. And while it has been interesting, it hasn’t been confusing, incomprehensible, or surprising.

    Unless you’re carrying some idea such that, if I don’t believe you I can’t have really understood you. But I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting.

    To claim that you’re more moral than those who wrote the Bible is…well

    Yes, I would claim that. In fact I’d also claim that about you, and just about everyone I know. You are more moral than the people who wrote the bible. It seems very obvious to me. To deny the last 2000 years of hard-won moral victories seems something that only a middle-class straight white male could do.

    I hope you’ll remember the things I’ve said, and recall them in a time when you become more open-minded.

    I like that. And I will. If I come to Christ, again, at some point, I will do so richer for the comments of you, and richer for the comments of other atheists too.

    But tell me, to what extent have you changed your mind since being here? To the extent I am closed minded, I suspect you match me at least as much.

    I think it best for me to move on.

    That’s a real shame. I enjoy talking with you. I respect your right to hold the beliefs you do. Some of those beliefs I respect, others I think are problematic and therefore do not deserve respect. But you knew this from the start. You’ve never shied away from telling me I’m wrong, from telling me about God, and from strongly putting forward your view. So I wonder why you’d object to me doing the opposite. Would you let me share my message on your blog without challenging me? I really hope not.

    Anyway I hope you don’t move on, because preaching to the choir doesn’t help anyone.

  11. Marko

    Thanks for this Ian and sorry for only now commenting. I’m not sure I followed the paragraph regarding the objectivity of morality though, or can see how morality can have an objective basis. What does it mean to be arbitrarily assigned to each other’s consciousness?

    I recently moved to Sydney and have just joined a cafe philosophy group linked to this blogger you might find interesting:

  12. Ian

    Thanks for the link Marko. I’ve added that blog to my reader, it does look interesting.

    On the issue of objectivity. I think about objectivity as anything that doesn’t depend on a particular viewpoint or experience. It starts with an assumption that there are genuinely other people like me in the world, and that my experience is not therefore special. Something can be subjectively true for me, but to be objectively true, it shouldn’t rely on a particular person.

    The assignment is another way to say the same thing. What does it mean for something not to rely on my subjectivity? It means that, if you were me, or I was you, the same thing would be true. If anyone were anyone else and the same thing still was true, then it is objectively true.

    So this is objective morality. An action is right objectively if you could put yourself in anyone’s shoes and it would still be right.

    Objective morality is often confused (particularly among theists) for an ultimate moral authority. So I’ve been criticised along the lines that, in my version of moral objectivity, it isn’t clear everyone would agree what is right or wrong, so it isn’t really ‘objective’ unless you have ultimate authority.

    But, in fact ‘ultimate moral authority’ nobody agrees on what the ultimate moral authority actually commands, in any case, so the theistic problem is exactly the same, they just dress it in different words.

    And, in fact, it is no different from the problem of ascertaining any objective truth. I believe that the universe is an objective reality, but since we can only access it through subjective means, it is very difficult to get to that reality. It is impossible to get there. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ideas that are closer or further (in the same way it is impossible to be the perfect husband, but that doesn’t mean I should give up trying to be a better husband).

    This is a bit brief, sorry. I should post on objectivity some time.

  13. Marko

    Thanks and sorry for my slowness in responding.
    I take the point about the usefulness of assuming there is some kind of objective reality which we can have shared experiences of (I’m a scientist for a living so it would be hard to get anywhere without that assumption), but morals are surely in a different category – they’re not ‘out there’ to experience and describe in the same way as, say, the chair I’m sitting on, are they?

  14. Ian

    No, I agree, they are different kinds of thing.

    But I don’t think that means morality is not objective, just because it is a different kind of thing to other objective things. Moral rights and wrongs aren’t ‘real’ in the sense they can be directly observed or measured. They are abstractions of lots of complex behaviour.

    Objectivity stands in contrast to subjectivity, where subjectivity is anything that depends on who the subject is.

    So you could say my moral position is objective non-realism. Though “non-realism” means something specific in moral philosophy, which is not how I’m using it (I’d be called a “moral realist” in philosophical terms).

    But we have other things that are also objective and not-real, like lots of bits of math (number, for example) and loads of other concepts.

  15. Marko

    Ok, good. But for the things you call non real but still objective, like numbers, don’t you need to agree on a set of axioms from which everything else follows for them to be useful? How would that work for morality? It seems to me the problem is that what is moral is not self evident enough to have such a starting point, and as such is inherently subjective, i.e. not everyone would agree on them. So while I agree with you that some kind of utilitarianism is a desirable rational basis for morality, you still need to choose what the utility is, eg happiness or some other human experience, and this is surely always subjective. I fear I may be missing the point!

  16. Ian

    I don’t think two, for example, depends on any axioms or any agreement for what it is. Sure we need to agree what language we use for it, but we don’t give it its twoness by axioms. I think two is stronger than morality in its claim for objectivty, because two would still be two were no humans alive to think it.

    But yes, there is an issue in dealing with this in practice. In calculating utility, or in determining preference among the roles in a situation. So the practice is dirty and messy, but I don’t think that means that utilitarianism itself cannot be objectively correct. Perhaps I’m spreading the butter of the idea too thinly across the toast here. If so, that’s fine. I’m not particularly wedded to the word, and if it isn’t helpful, I’ll stop using it.

  17. Marko

    I take your point about two; I still don’t find the word objective helpful in the case of morality, but the discussion has been, thanks.

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