Why be moral?

Some Christians argue that if morality doesn’t come from God, then there is no reason to be moral. Even if there is no God we still have to learn to get along. Do chimpanzees believe in God? They have a certain social order. Theft, murder, deception and infidelity take place. But they also cooperate, and express tenderness and generosity. Human morality is what we make it. We have more self-awareness than most animals and our society is more complex. Some people think we should permit homosexuality, others argue that it hurts the family. I think that stealing office supplies from my employer hurts me. It reduces company profits and if I get caught it damages my reputation. When we look to the Bible for moral guidelines we find a lot of wisdom. But many of its prohibitions no longer make sense today. “Because I said so” is every parent’s weakest reason for obedience. “Because God said so” is any person’s weakest reason for deciding that something is wrong.

13 Replies to “Why be moral?”

  1. I began to drift away from Christianity more than ten years ago and at that time I would have found this answer unnacceptable. I wanted someone to tell me what to believe, but I didn’t trust anyone. I already knew what my parents would tell me. They are very conservative Christians. I didn’t want to become a liberal Christian because that was no different to me than being a non-Christian and still going to church. The only people that made sense to me were secular scientists and historians. I admire people who have given their beliefs a lot of thought but I dislike baseless dogmatism. I am learning to accept that humans don’t have all the answers.

  2. Well, we can agree on two thing. I also dislike baseless dogmatism. And, you’re right, humans don’t have all the answers.

    But I think your argument is exactly backwards. “Because it’s right” is the strongest reason for deciding to do something.

    It’s when you find that wallet and decide to return it to its rightful owner, or when you could cheat and get away with it, but choose not to; it’s when you sacrifice self-interest hoping for nothing in return, or when you give to someone you’ll never meet that you achieve the highest morality. It’s doing the right thing when no one is looking.

    With strict materialism, you have none of these things. No basis for altruism, self-sacrifice, or love for your fellow human being. In a strictly material world, you should be moral whenever you have something to gain. You should be moral when it advances your interests. That’s what survival of the fittest is all about.

    Why should you help someone halfway across the world who could never possibly repay the kindness? “Getting along” and “social order” can’t explain this.

    I heard an interview (thanks to Perry for the link) with Paul Kurtz, the atheist of Free Inquiry fame, in which he was asked to explain his contention that humanist morality is more than just self-interest. He couldn’t do it. The interviewer, himself an atheist, agreed to come back to the question later in the interview. I’ll be posting some quotes from the interview later, but I suggest you listen to it. http://www.pointofinquiry.org/paul_kurtz_ethics_for_the_nonreligious/

    On your strictly materialistic worldview, theft, murder, deception and infidelity are just a violation of the chimpanzee-like “social order,” nothing more. To quote William Lane Craig, “these things are not wrong, just unfashionable.”

  3. To discover why people do what they do is difficult. To say that murder is out of fashion is a great over simplification. Biology is a big component. I’m sure William Lane Craig is aware of how brain injuries and deformations can affect behavior. People seem to be born with different temperaments. Our own personal identity has a lot to do with how we behave. Do I see myself as a killer? Do I feel like society owes me something? Whether a person might get caught has a big impact on the way they behave, too. I feel like I will always get caught. I think training a child to be honest and kind can be effective. There is more to behavior than just reproductive advantage. Where I fit in the social order affects the decisions I make. Would William Lane Craig say that people steal only because they have a sinful nature? Even returning a wallet can have its advantages. It can make you feel honorable. It makes you look good in front of the person to whom you returned it. Some people return wallets with a secret hope for a reward. Solitary mammals may have no reason to be altruistic but no man is an island. Even loners think about who they are and how they fit into their community.

  4. Belief in God has been shown not to be related to one’s moral beliefs. You are moral because you have an inner conscious that tells you what is right and wrong. Researchers have demonstrated that everyone (atheists, deists, Muslims, Christians) basically hold the same moral beliefs. (http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1685055_1685076_1686619,00.html)

    I don’t believe in God & also don’t believe in murder, deception, etc. So, Bombo’s assertion that a strictly materialistic view of the world automatically means you conclude that murder, deception, etc. are ok is just ludicrous. How do you reconcile those opposing facts?

    People are moral because we evolved a conscious and we derive a benefit to ourselves & our society for being that way. You should help other people because it makes you feel good and your evolved conscious tells you it’s the right thing to do. Helping other people because you expect some reward in heaven is…strange. IMO being moral only because you think you will be rewarded with going to heaven at the end of your life is selfish, childish, and disturbing.

  5. Dedwarmo, the secret hope of reward, advancement in the social order, and not getting caught are examples of self-interest, and are things which would impart survival advantage.

    But you’ve ignored my examples of altruistic behavior that gives no survival advantage (doing the right thing when there is no hope of reward, sacrificing self-interest, etc.) Natural Selection is only interested in survival and “good behavior” is selected only if it aids survival. Much of morality stands in opposition to natural selection, and therefore cannot be explained by it.

    Perry, I think you’ve made two errors. First, you’re guilty of attacking a straw man. I made no mention of doing anything because I expect a reward in heaven. That was an assumption on your part. My examples were of doing things because they are the right thing to do, sometimes without the expectation of any reward at all.

    However, even if your assumption were true, it’s still a bad argument. You criticize the hope of future reward as “selfish,” but three sentences earlier you defended acting morally because we “derive a benefit to ourselves”!

    Secondly, you are confusing an epistemological question (how we come to know or believewhat is right and wrong) with an ontological one (the existence of moral values).

    You said we should help other people in part because your “conscience tells you it’s the right thing to do.” But that only attempts explains the Christian’s and the Atheist’s similar sense of right and wrong. It does nothing to defend the existence of moral values. And it is not objective. If your conscience says murder is wrong and mine says it’s right, why should I follow your conscience? How do you know your conscience is correct? After all, your brain is the result of random mutations and natural selection.

    You can defeat my “ludicrous” statement that in a strictly materialistic view of the world, murder, deception, etc. are not wrong, by providing evidence that those things are wrong.

    In a materialist world, murder is just one group of molecules attacking another group of molecules. How can that be objectively wrong?

    Richard Dawkins, Great Britain’s foremost atheist, is at least consistent when he says there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, just molecules in motion.

    “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: `For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Richard Dawkins, “River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life,” Phoenix: London, 1996, p.155.)

  6. @Bombo – What part of morality stands in opposition to Natural Selection? Altruistic behavior is perfectly explainable by natural selection. NS works on a population level not on an individual level. Therefore incidences of altruistic behavior in an individual when they help out a population are perfectly in line with the theory.

    Perhaps I have offered a straw man, but unless you’re some different kind of Christian, don’t you believe that people who live amoral lives will go to Hell and people who believe in Jesus & repent their sins end up in Heaven? If you don’t believe these things, then it is a straw man. If you do, then it’s not. You also didn’t finish the rest of my quote where I said to “to ourselves and our society”. People should act moral for both themselves (selfish) and others (selfless).

    I did provide you evidence that murder, deception, etc. are wrong. I believe in a materialistic view of the world, I don’t believe in God, but I do believe murder, deception, etc. are wrong. What more evidence are you looking for?

    What I really don’t understand is what benefit does belief in God given morality provide? If Atheists & Christians (and Muslims & all humans) hold basically the same moral sense of right and wrong (as shown by research), then what extra benefit does religion provide? What is wrong with a democratic code of morality?

    That way if your conscience tells you murder is ok, and the majority of consciences say it’s not. The majority is perfectly moral in sending you to prison for the rest of your life. That’s the way things work now. No God required.

    Incidentally, I agree with Dawkins. Life is just molecules in motion. Free will, consciousness, etc. are just illusions. I just ignore these facts as they are irrelevant.

  7. The part of morality that stands in opposition to Natural Selection is altruistic behavior which does not benefit the individual’s population. For instance, sacrificing for someone halfway around the world with no possible benefit to one’s self or one’s particular population.

    If I believed that one should be moral simply because there is a reward in heaven, you have not attacked a straw man. But I don’t believe that.

    I do believe that those who believe in Jesus & repent of their sins end up in Heaven, but I also believe that those who have their sins forgiven have more than purely selfish motives for doing what’s right. Many people do what is right out of love for God, not out of fear or hope of reward.

    I’ve written a response to your arguments about morality at

    By the way, since you said you agree with Dawkins, do you agree with him when he says, “there is no evil and no good”? If so, that contradicts your statement that some things are wrong.

  8. Bobmo, thanks so much for your reply. It’s rare that I get to discuss such matters with anyone in “real” life. People seem hostile or shut down whenever these topics arise.

    Anyway, I disagree that altruism is at odds with natural selection. Altruism evolved precisely because it is beneficial to the population as a whole. Natural selection works on a population level not on an individual level. You seem to misunderstand that part of the concept. “Survival of the fittest” refers to the population, not the individual.

    Imagine two groups of penguins. In one, there are no altruistic members. In the other, there are a few who will jump into unknown waters first to test whether there are killer sea lions in the water. They sacrifice themselves so the rest of their group can live.

    Biological studies have shown that penguins groups with these altruistic scouts live and thrive better than groups without. Thus, altruism is a favored trait that propagates. It’s not at odds with natural selection.

    I do agree with Dawkins that in reality, there is ultimately no evil and no good. Life is really just molecules in motion. However, as I said before, I ignore these facts as they are irrelevant to life. I accept and live in the illusion my brain creates. The feelings of right and wrong are all part of it. But those feelings motivate my behavior and compel me to live a moral life.

    I don’t see that as a contradiction. It’s just a practical way to live.

  9. Bobmo, You say there is no basis for “love for your fellow human being.” I disagree. If people see that you are a kind and loving person they are more likely to be kind and loving toward you.

  10. Not if those people live half way around the world and have no chance of ever meeting you because you have given to them anonymously.

  11. Not knowing the people you’re being kind to is irrelevant. Altruistic behavior is programmed in some people’s brains. The fact that it doesn’t immediately benefit them or anyone they know doesn’t change the fact that they are genetically pre-programmed to be altruistic.

    There is also the immediate value to the individual which makes them feel good that they are helping someone out.

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