A Secular Source of Morality

WE are forever being told by creationists that without their input we “Darwinists” are mere animals, blundering around in a random world with no way of knowing right from wrong. Their spiritual insight, they say, is vital for distinguishing good from evil. But is this true? We’ve discussed the issue before, for example: Creationism and Morality, where we said:

Suppose you evolved from some primordial blob without any divine action at all. Okay, you’re on your own, with no bible, just your intelligence to guide you. You’re looking for a place to settle down with your family and your flocks. Assume that the cities you might move to have signs outside their gates, telling you the rules. One says: “Murder is okay with us!” Another says: “Welcome, and we’ll rape your women!” Yet another says: “No private property here. We’ll take all your stuff!” Do you need to consult Genesis before you to decide to avoid those places? You’ll choose a city with a sign saying “No murder, rape, or theft,” as will most people. Those are the successful societies.

And in Morality, Evolution, and Darwin we said:

Regardless of whether we were specially created or evolved, and regardless of any supposed instructions from or even the existence of gods, every sane adult you ask will tell you that: (1) he doesn’t want to be murdered, enslaved, raped, or otherwise assaulted; (2) he doesn’t want his property stolen; (3) he doesn’t want to be told lies or be cheated; (4) he doesn’t want his private behavior or his honest and voluntary dealings with others to be restricted; and (5) he doesn’t want his thoughts regulated. Given mankind’s unanimity on the foregoing, would it not be reasonable to conclude that the desire to be free from those conditions is an objectively verifiable attribute of all humans, and therefore any system of morality should be based thereon?

That’s where we left it. We didn’t attempt to construct a moral code based on the nature of man. Indeed, we said that’s not the purpose of science — and we still think that. All we said was that a moral code should be consistent with man’s nature. Specifically: “We’re not saying that science is morality; but science gives us knowledge, and knowledge is essential to morality.” But now we think it’s possible to carry things a bit further.

We know the traditional objection to what we’re attempting: No matter how much we learn, that only tells us what is, and you can’t go from an “is” to an “ought.” It’s the is-ought problem in philosophy, described by David Hume. As Wikipedia puts it:

Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an “ought” be derived from an “is”? In other words, given knowledge of the way the world is, how can one know the way the world ought to be?

Let the philosophers disagree, but we don’t think it’s so terribly difficult. We suggest that there is a very simple, very direct way to construct a fine moral code based on the nature of human beings. Many will disagree, but that’s okay. Here we go:

Starting where we left off in our earlier post, we’ve taken our global survey and we know what people want — they want to be free from the abuses described above. That’s inherent in being human — it’s what is. Fine, but now what? How do we go from there to the way we ought to behave?

Well, suppose it’s a long time ago and you’re a peculiar kind of real estate developer — you’re starting up your own city-state. You need settlers, good ones, those who will generate a prosperous society. You’ve done your market research and you know how people are. In particular, you know what people don’t want (they don’t want to be killed, robbed, enslaved, etc.).

So you write a moral code for your city, outlawing all the things you know aren’t wanted. You don’t tell people what they should do — that’s left up to them. You only tell them what they should not do. And you set up a police force and a court system to deal with lawbreakers. Yes, and for contract disputes and a few other details we needn’t discuss here Then you put the word out about what you’ve got to offer, and you sit back to wait for settlers. If you build it, they will come.

The concept is simple. No recourse to Genesis is required. No belief in — or even knowledge of — Noah’s Ark is necessary. And most definitely, creationism plays no part in any of this. Your city-state will thrive quite well without any of that.

So there you have it — a perfectly functional moral code based on what is. It ought to result in something like a libertarian Athens — but without slavery, and where Socrates wouldn’t be executed for impiety.

Was a society like that ever possible? We don’t know; it’s never been attempted. America came close, but in some respects it seems to have gone awry. Nevertheless, the idea is sound — or so it seems to us.

From what is to the way we ought to behave. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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34 responses to “A Secular Source of Morality

  1. Gabriel Hanna

    And if the things that people don’t want are wrong things?

    For example, people don’t want to work if they don’t have to. They don’t want consequences from smoking, drinking, or sex. They don’t want to pay for their own expenses, for example.

    If I advertised a city state that promised those things, I’d have plenty of takers.

  2. Gabriel Hanna

    Hans Reichenbach was an empiricist philosopher who took a stab at this question and I don’t think I understand him well enough to give you the key points. He agrees that you can’t go from is to ought but that ethical statements can be understood as expressions of will (commands, if you like). Here’s one summary:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reichenbach/#EthFreWil

    To assert “X is good” is just to assert “I approve of X: Do so as well!” In The Rise of Scientific Philosophy he insists that ethical statements express “volitional decisions,” without truth values, that are not subject to empirical knowledge. The empirical issues of ethics are only the causal questions of relations of means to ends. Reichenbach allows a place for logic in reasoning from ethical premises to ethical conclusions, but he insists that the characteristic feature of ethical statements, and the proper conclusion of ethical reasoning, is a call to action. Whatever else they are, ethical claims are imperatives. His recommendation for resolving fundamental ethical disagreements is not philosophy or science, but “social friction.” In keeping with his politics, Reichenbach’s last practical advice was the same as Joe Hill’s: Organize! But Reichenbach’s deepest ethical injunction was implicit in his most popular book: to form beliefs, to judge them, to change them, to weigh actions, to distinguish real from merely verbal differences, by the canons of scientific philosophy.

  3. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Hans Reichenbach … insists that the characteristic feature of ethical statements, and the proper conclusion of ethical reasoning, is a call to action.

    Hans and I are on different planets. The system I described is all about constraints, not calls to action. It’s a bunch of “thou shalt nots.”

  4. Well, Curmie. Shucks. Eastern philosophy (ie hinduism and buddhism) predates the bible by at least 500 years, and yet manages to address all of the moral concerns that said western bible does.

    Yet- they are unmoral heathens who stole their morality from the bible. You know, because morality is impossible without the bible and creationism to tell us we are sinners in need of saving.

  5. Gabriel Hanna

    SC, your constraints are derived from what people say they want; you are putting their calls to action into action.

    If you and Reichenbach are on different planets, you’re on the wrong one–he is the most sensible philosopher I have ever read, except maybe Hume.

    Reichenbach’s solution is similar to yours–everyone will issue different ethical principles, which can be understood as experessions of what sort of world we should all live in, and people will gravitate to the ones they agree with.

  6. Gabriel Hanna says:

    SC, your constraints are derived from what people say they want; you are putting their calls to action into action.

    I fear we may be descending into word-play. I don’t think a rule that says: “We won’t allow slavery here” is a call to action. Well, except when it comes to arresting and punishing slave-traders. I agree that my system could degenerate into something stupid, like prohibition of alcohol. But the premise of the system is that the constraints are desired by everyone.

    And yes, there can be competing city-states with their own rules. No problem there. People will vote with their feet.

  7. Gabriel Hanna

    I don’t think a rule that says: “We won’t allow slavery here” is a call to action. Well, except when it comes to arresting and punishing slave-traders.

    Res ipsa loquitor… by saying something is illegal, you are saying that you will use force to prevent people from doing it or to impose punishments after the fact. Sounds like call to action to me.

    And yes, there can be competing city-states with their own rules. No problem there. People will vote with their feet.

    And when my Spartan state conquers and enslaves the one next to yours, and your people vote you out so they can surrender before we kick their asses and make them, will it be moral for them to do so?

  8. Gabriel Hanna says:

    And when my Spartan state conquers and enslaves the one next to yours …

    We’re not worried. We know all about you Spartan boys. Besides, my city is rich. We’ll hire all the mercenaries we need to send you back to Sparta.

  9. Gabriel Hanna

    my city is rich. We’ll hire all the mercenaries we need to send you back to Sparta.

    Your mercenaries will prefer to rob you rather than fight us.

    After all, we’re super tough, and we don’t have money. You are soft and weak and rich. If you were a mercenary, it would be a no-brainer–and by your logic moral to boot.

  10. Gabriel Hanna says: “After all, we’re super tough …”

    Yeah, yeah. If anyone in Sparta has any brains, he’ll leave you and join my show. You’ll be left with the dumbest thugs on the planet. Have fun.

  11. What I’m concluding is that a city with reasonable laws reflecting the commonly held “moral” desires of it’s populace must be a namby-pamby city of weaklings? Being rich, I would think they would have long since implemented some appropriate means of protecting themselves from their neighbors who might envy their wealth. Stealth catapults, or some similar devices.

  12. To the original topic, which is that the creationist and other religious people believe atheists have no basis for moral behavior…. and SC has come up with an counter… my belief is that the entire presumption is ridiculous on it’s face. If one is an atheist, then one must believe that humans (not gods) made up all the worlds religions, therefore they also invented their various rules and moral codes. I like to point to christianity as an example of a moral system invented by humans. One in need of revising, perhaps, but still human created.

    The real argument is whether or not humans will act morally in the absence of perceived inevitable punishment for not doing so (the hell deterrent). I don’t think there is a clear answer to that, and individuals vary, which is why we have laws. But humans can clearly agree and invent codes of behavior without conjuring up a supernatural consultant for advice.

  13. Gabriel Hanna

    @SC:

    Yeah, yeah. If anyone in Sparta has any brains, he’ll leave you and join my show. You’ll be left with the dumbest thugs on the planet. Have fun.

    They’ll be forcibly assimilated. Are you under the impression that Athens won the Peleponnesian War? Sparta won that war, and Athens dwindled into irrelevance–the other Greek cities wanted Athens razed and its people enslaved, but the Spartans settled for taking everything that wasn’t nailed down.

    The other Greek cities all fell into line with Sparta eventually, despite the fact that everyone knew what life under their yoke would be like.

    @Ed:

    What I’m concluding is that a city with reasonable laws reflecting the commonly held “moral” desires of it’s populace must be a namby-pamby city of weaklings?

    I’m not saying this is bound to happen. What I’m trying to illustrate here if we just allow people to choose their system of ethics the way SC thinks they could be allowed to, some of them are going to choose systems where it is moral to beat up other people and take their things, and those people who worship power and violence may well end up imposing their ethics on everyone by force.

    If cities like SC’s are to survive, they’re going to have to be unwilling to tolerate some kinds of ethics and be proactive in dealing with people who hold them–imagine an Athens populated with Winston Churchills.

    I’m just trying to say that SCs answer is not very complete, and suggest the ways in which he might improve it.

  14. Gabriel Hanna

    There are people who worship power, who think might makes right. Those people attract followers, motivated by fear or by greed or by power-worship. Maybe lots of people will prefer SC’s city to mine, in their hearts, but mine might well end up being more successful. If morality is determined by popular vote, we have to consider this possibility.

  15. Gabriel Hanna

    Especially since it’s been the norm throughout human history…

  16. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Are you under the impression that Athens won the Peleponnesian War?

    No, but that wasn’t my Athens. Anyway, just because my city-state is moral (by my secular definition) doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be defeated in war. There are no such guarantees. That doesn’t discredit my system of morality.

  17. Gabriel Hanna

    SC:There are no such guarantees. That doesn’t discredit my system of morality.

    Well, you appealed to what most people would end up living under, didn’t you?

  18. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Well, you appealed to what most people would end up living under, didn’t you?

    No. My system is based on the way all people (except bizarre anomalies) want to live. You seem to suggest that morality implies weakness and failure. That can happen, but I don’t see it as inevitable. People should be willing to defend their system — especially if it’s one that they really want.

  19. Gabriel Hanna

    My system is based on the way all people (except bizarre anomalies) want to live.

    I think a disturbing number of people want to force other people to live in a certain way, at the expense of getting to live the way you say they want to live.

  20. retiredsciguy

    Jumping in to this discussion late, I agree for the most part with your idea, Curmy. But Ed has a point:
    “The real argument is whether or not humans will act morally in the absence of perceived inevitable punishment for not doing so (the hell deterrent). ”

    If atheists and agnostics are smart, they will not be evangelistic. As for myself, I don’t have any problem with my neighbor thinking he’s going into the Lake of Fire if he tries to burglarize my house. Or worse.

    How big a police force are you going to need, Curmy?

  21. Gabriel and SC,

    Hold the phone, guys. Let me get some popcorn.

    (runs to kitchen, microwaves a bag, pulls it out, grabs a soda, sits back down).

    Okay. Carry on.

  22. retiredsciguy

    Gary, they must have quit for the night.

  23. Gabriel Hanna says:

    I think a disturbing number of people want to force other people to live in a certain way …

    That’s true. But those who opt for my city-state are declaring that they don’t want to live under the control of others. Wannabe dictators can live in your city. In mine they’d be regarded as criminals.

  24. retiredsciguy asks:

    How big a police force are you going to need, Curmy?

    Whatever it takes. But I imagine the entire citizenry would be some kind of militia, to preserve their society, so the professional police might not be that many.

  25. Gabriel Hanna

    Wannabe dictators can live in your city….

    That’s right; they’ll be the bosses (of YOUR citizens) and will get to have all sorts of things that you can’t get from merely being left alone… slaves and concubines and getting to see people cower when they swagger around and collecting bribes and such.

    There is a huge proportion of humanity that wants to live like THAT, and you see them everywhere people aren’t free; which for most of history means “everywhere”.

    I think that your ideas about what “everyone wants” are ideas about what YOU want. Granted you’re not the only one, but your view of human seems somewhat naive.

    There were lots of times in history where small groups of people chose their own laws, and it almost never ended up the way you said it should. I have to conclude that your experiment has already been done, and already failed–or else you have to conclude that slavery and tyranny are moral because that’s what people chose when left to themselves.

  26. Gabriel Hanna says:

    There is a huge proportion of humanity that wants to live like THAT …

    I know. They won’t want to live in my city state. I imagine my people would be mostly runaway slaves, women tired of being raped, business men who were ruined by politicians and bureaucrats, and scholars fleeing inquisitions. I don’t know why you conclude they’ll be a bunch of fat helpless dorks who will swiftly fall under the lash of your Spartans. They might, they might not.

    … –or else you have to conclude that slavery and tyranny are moral because that’s what people chose when left to themselves.

    Most slaves didn’t choose that status. So it’s not “what people choose when left to themselves.”

  27. One word: Spinoza.

  28. Gabriel Hanna

    SC, if it’s so obvious what people want when left to themselves to choose it, why did no one choose it?

    An example: Mayflower Compact. They made laws, much like the ones you’re talking about–and denied religious freedom to anyone but themselves. Why would they choose that? Because it benefited THEM at the expense of other people who didn’t get a choice, that’s why.

    Can you find for me a counterexample from history, where it worked out the way you said it should? Because if you can’t, then there is something wrong with your analysis–you claim it’s universal but it never happens?

    People are happy to grant privileges to themselves that someone else, who isn’t consulted, have to pay for. That is what I contend the norm is.

  29. Gabriel Hanna says:

    SC, if it’s so obvious what people want when left to themselves to choose it, why did no one choose it?

    I contend that everyone would choose, for example, a life where he is not a slave, not a victim of murder, theft, rape, fraud, or thought control, and where he won’t be burned at the stake for heresy. I don’t think you can seriously deny it. You’re right, there’s no such place. So what? That’s what I want. Even your Spartans would express such a preference regarding their own lives.

    On the other hand, there are those who want to be on the tyranny end of those activities. My city would have only the former. The latter would be treated as criminals. I can’t believe this is too complicated for you. I think you’re having one of your “bad Gabriel” days.

  30. Gabriel Hanna

    I contend that everyone would choose, for example, a life where he is not a slave, not a victim of murder, theft, rape, fraud, or thought control, and where he won’t be burned at the stake for heresy.

    Right, but a city that offered all those things PLUS the chance to HAVE slaves, rape, murder, and rob, and burn OTHER people for heresy would, I contend, sell better–and these are the kinds of places that actually HAVE existed.

    I can’ believe this is too complicated for you. I think you’re having one of your “bad Gabriel” days.

    This is why the Athenians made Socrates drink hemlock. What’s so bad about encouraging you to think a little harder? Millions of people have argued this question for thousands of years, and nobody’s come up with a knock-down answer.

    If it’s sycophantic adulation you want, you’ll never get it from me. You do, however, get respect and admiration for what you are doing. I just think that what you’ve come up with is promising, but naive, and prodding you to think it through a bit more. It’s not I like I have the answer in the back of the book, either.

    Remember “My Early Life” where Churchill is arguing with the university graduates about stuff like slavery, and he got really upset that they would argue this with him? They didn’t disagree with him on the evil of slavery, they were just trying to show him he was a bit naive.

    OT: Abbie at ERV is almost to one million visitors. Go say hi, and maybe push her over the top.

  31. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Abbie at ERV is almost to one million visitors. Go say hi, and maybe push her over the top.

    I already did. I wonder what my prize will be.

  32. Gabriel I think you are naive to think that Athenians made Socrates drink hemlock just because he tried to make them think harder.

  33. Gabriel Hanna

    Flakey, I’m sure you’re right, but annoying them with questions about issues they thought already resolved was doubtless one motivation.

    I think, reading between the lines on the Apology, and reading some other history, Socrates had too many friends and pupils among the Thirty Tyrants–who had been a Spartan puppet government, leading us back to our original subject.

    Most of what we know comes from the Apology which is not an unbiased source.

  34. Seems to me, things have gotten way off-target here. Gabriel makes some good points but, goes way beyond the scope of what SC was saying. SC gave a simple/basic example and Gabriel wants to throw in all the what-ifs. Its like blaming SC for not building the Empire State Building when he is just trying to show us how to make concrete. In an odd way, I think Gabriel proves SC’s point. Creationists claim a moral high ground because they claim morality handed down by God. Us atheistic evolutionists have no such claim, therefore we must be immoral and thus evil. Yet, even after thousands of years, people still debate exactly what God meant when he said this or that and, have used “His Word” to justify nearly anything they want.