A Question for Our Irreligious Readers:

Below, I asked a subset of our religious readers a question that I think many irreligious readers might want to know the answer to. Now, I'd like to ask our irreligious readers a question that I think many religious readers might want to know the answer to. Again, I ask this out of respect to for your views, not disrespect: I want people on the other side to understand your views.

Let me therefore ask a question of those irreligious readers that believe that certain things — murder, rape, robbery, and more — are morally wrong. Irreligious people, like religious people, often feel this very strongly, and are willing both to act and to refrain from acting based on these judgments. They might, for instance, refuse to do certain things that are practically advantageous to them because they think they would be wrong; or they may do certain things that are risky or costly because they think that these actions are needed to prevent wrong. I'd love to hear your thoughts, if you fall in the category given above. I have also asked a related question of a subset of my religious readers, so don't feel like I'm only picking on one side here.

Here's the question: Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?

There are, after all, many rivals. Just to list a few: We should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of humans; the greatest good for the greatest number of my fellow citizens of a certain country; the greatest good for me and my family; the greatest good for me; the greatest good for all sentient species on the Earth; the greatest good for humanity in all future generations. We should not initiate force or fraud against others; we should not engage in force or fraud against others even if they initiate it; we should not initiate force but we may initiate fraud; "others" should only include humans; "others" should include all animals that can feel pain; "others" should include all animals that have more than some threshold of intelligence. We should do only those things that we would be willing to have all others do; some of us should do whatever we want to do, because we're superior to others; we should do those things that are best for us, since others are going to do the same in any event.

Now if you believed that there was a God who created the world, who was concerned with human affairs, who in some measure controlled access to a happy afterlife, and who made his will known by delivering a book that chronicled both his prescriptions and a list of miracles that he himself had performed, you might choose as an axiom "Do what God tells me to do." This itself wouldn't be an open and shut argument; but I think that, if the factual assertions behind it were accurate, it would have substantial plausibility.

But you don't believe this. Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can't logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle? Or do you think that you can indeed logically support your choice of axiom, without calling on some other axioms that you can't logically support — and, if so, how?

In any event, I'd love to hear your thoughts, if you fall in the category given above. I also ask below a related question of my religious readers, so don't feel like I'm only picking on one side here.

Note, though, an important rule applicable only to the comments to this post and its mate: I want only comments that try to answer these questions, not those that argue against the answers, or that criticize the answers, even politely. I do reserve for myself the blogger's prerogative of adding updates that clarify the question or ask for clarifications to the answers. But because I want people to feel as free as possible to express their deeply held views, in this instance I would rather that they do so without risk of criticism from fellow commenters.

Remember: The point of this thread is so that religious people are more able to understand the other side, not so that we can have a debate on this question.

Those who really want to comment on the questions generally, rather than to answer them (or to criticize the answers), may do so in the comments to this placeholder post.

Eduardo S:
People far smarter than I have written volumes on these subjects. That said, I can't resist adding my simple perspective.

I do good because it is in my best interest. I want to be treated well, so I treat others well. It grows.

And of course, morality is selected for. We (humans) wouldn't be here if our natures tilted too strongly toward amorality.
12.1.2005 2:41pm
Anon1ms (mail):
I agree with Eduardo . . . just because it's in the Bible "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," does not make it an unvalid principle around which to order your life. In fact, it is one of the few principles that everyone can follow without harm to anyone.
12.1.2005 2:47pm
Bob Bobstein (mail):
Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can't logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle?

#1, a non-logical reason: I have absorbed so deeply the values that my parents taught by example that I don't need any logical or theological grounds for behaving the way I beieve is right (ie, being considerate to others, caring about the world around me, etc.)

#2, a more-logical, and probably less accurately descriptive reason: I accept the evidence of my senses that other people are sentient beings deserving of equal consideration. Hence, do unto others as you best perceive that they would want to be done unto them. (With some caveats, but here isn't the place to spell out one's moral philosophy).

I hope this is the sort of response you were looking for. Many thanks for this question, which should spark a great discussion. FWIW, I'm trying to convince myself to become religious at this moment, so maybe I'm unrepresentive.
12.1.2005 2:48pm
kfj (mail):
I don't believe that my moral judgements follow by deductive logic from a list of axioms (as in Principia Mathematica). Rather, I have certain beliefs about right and wrong whose causes I am unsure of but would guess evolution, psychology, etc. I think that while logical arguments obviously play a role in shaping people's perception of reality and therefore also affect moral opinions, ultimately the appeal to morality is never logical. (Of course morality can have utilitarian benefits to society, but I don't consider that the reason for my morals.)
12.1.2005 2:50pm
Mersmann (mail):
Dawkins has spoken at great length about "altruism" from a completely secular point of view.

In iterated games of prisoner's dilemma with an infinite or unknown number of iterations, the strategy which strikes the best balance between simplicity and efficacy is tit-for-tat (in that it is VERY simple and VERY effective) that is to say - cooperation until the other party defects, then retaliatory defection to minimize losses.

A society which practices this (or a similar strategy of two-tits-for-a-tat or one-tit-for-two-tats - depending on the degree to which the defecting behavior needs to be disincentivised) will succeed in the long run over a society that always defects or always cooperates.

Thus we have morally "right" to keep us cooperating, and morally "wrong" to ensure we react to defectors.
12.1.2005 2:50pm
William Baude (mail) (www):
I follow my unprovable moral axioms because I believe, on moral reflection, that they are morally compelled. If this sounds terribly circular, that's because it is, but I don't see what that should be problematic.
12.1.2005 2:51pm
Tony (mail):
Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?

I have come to the conclusion that the core value of all morality is self-interest. Moral concepts that appear to not further self-interest on the surface are the result of a long negotiation process - millions of years long - that has resulted in contracts, compromises, habits, and mechanisms of coercion.

As a small example of how moral principles can emerge from self interest, take a Google at the concept of "forgiving tit for tat" in studies of iterated prisoners dilemma games. The concept of "forgiveness" emerges, surprisingly, in a way that is almost impossible to predict rationally, and which is driven entirely by self-interest. It seems quite plausible that all of human morality could, in principle, be modelled and accounted for on the same foundation.

Except, of course, that "self interest" really means the continuity of our genes through history.

I'm really just rehashing and extrapolating the premises of evolutionary psychology here, with a dash of Dawkins' "selfish gene" perspective. It's not very original, but it's the only account of morality that makes any sense at all to me.

Perhaps this sounds dry and heartless - but it isn't. The idea that romantic love, for instance, could arise through this process is a wonderful thing, nearly a miracle. And this viewpoint greatly increases my respect for seemingly "unselfish" forces such as altruism and compassion, and leads me in the end to what anyone would consider a more moral existence.
12.1.2005 2:52pm
roy (mail) (www):
When I act as though one of my moral axioms is not true, I feel bad. I don't like feeling bad. So I act as though the moral axiom is true. In that sense, in my day-to-day life, I don't "refuse to do certain things that are practically advantageous" out of a sense of morality. The good feelings of acting out of a sense of morality are practically advantageous.

In more extreme cases, such as sacrificing my own life to save another's, it's trickier. I could probably get over the bad feelings of letting someone die a lot easier than I could get over dying myself. I don't know whether I'd actually sacrifice myself, but I feel like I should to save, say, my sister. Or a schoolbus full of orphans.

My parents, teachers, peers, and TV taught me about morality. As I got older, I started to question things. The unsupported belief that it's immoral for two men to shag went away. The unsupported belief that it's immoral to murder didn't. I've twisted and turned my mind around the subject, but the belief just doesn't go away. I have a hunch it has something to do with biology, with some lessons being learned so thoroughly that we aren't capable of abandoning them. But I don't really know.
12.1.2005 2:52pm
busy law student (mail):
I have a paper due later today, so I don't have time to fully answer this question, but an excellent (and short) book which tries to answer where moral beliefs come from is Brian Skyrms: Evolution of the Social Contract

The book combines game theory models with evolution to argue that moral beliefs like altruism could be arrived at through evolution.

And although I don't have the link for it, there have been several studies done showing that monkeys (with whom we share genes) hold "moral" opinions about fairness. Such as getting upset when they see another monkey getting paid more for doing the same work.

This of course doesn't explain why people continue to hold these beliefs after becoming irreligious but it does explain why the beliefs seem so acceptable to people, whether religious or not.
12.1.2005 2:55pm
Paul Gowder (mail) (www):
Oh my, what a question.

The easy, but unsatisfactory, answer is "social conditioning."

The most interesting answer and satisfying answer I can come up with on the top of my head is this:

Unethical behavior, by certain narrow standards of ethics, is self-defeating in two senses: first, it is likely to not be universally usable (consider a common Kantian argument against lies: "if everyone did it, it wouldn't work"). Hence, we're all in a situation related to each other that could be rougly approximated by a prisoner's dilemma: I get immediate marginal utility from any one lie (etc.) but would get more utility (along with everyone else) if nobody lied. Society, recognizing this, sanctions the behavior (and individual social relations adopt, in a general sense, a tit for tat strategy) Hence, in those cases where the benefit is VERY high and the risk of discovery is VERY low, I might tell a lie or two, but ordinarily my interest in a functioning society + my fear of punishment + social conditioning + possible evolutionary effects keep me in line. Sort of like rule-utilitarianism backed up with punishment.

Of course, the easiest answer of all is: Wait a few years. Neurobiology will answer.
12.1.2005 2:59pm
Paul Gowder (mail) (www):
Oh, I forgot to write the second sense that unethical behavior is self-defeating). Simone de Beauvoir's argument (see The Ethics of Ambiguity) is basically convincing: in order to transcend my own subjectivity, I must enter into intersubjective relationships with others, and those relationships presuppose (perhaps by some Habermas-Apel type of performative contradiction) and necessitate (for my own emotional satisfaction) a respect for the basic autonomy of others.
12.1.2005 3:03pm
The existence of an omnipotent, sentient, benevolent Creator is not neccesary for the existence of morality.

That's basically what it boils down to--morality stems from the logic of intelligence, not from external factors.
12.1.2005 3:05pm
Pooh (www):
This very question has spawned endless debate between me and my former college roommate (who is now a pastor). The first, facile answer is that there is such a thing as Natural law. There are things that one should just not do.

But where does this 'Natural Law' come from? The best answer I can give upon examination is that, to avoid a Hobbesian existence, there has to be an implied Agreement, a 'social contract', to cooperate in avoiding the prisoner's dillema. I'm not sure that 'contract' is the right word to use because there is a moral component to this Agreement that I don't think applies to contracts-at-law, but for lack of a better term, I'll use it.

Notions of privacy, private property and individual rights neccesarily include the right to be free from others imposing or impinging upon those things without just cause. In order for the Contract to survive, definition of that 'just cause' must begin with a person's own actions, else the 'consideration' is illusory.

As I work through this myself, I see that without this baseline level of respect for the persons and possessions of others, 'self-determination' becomes largely illusory. As a person of non-faith, self-determinism is probably the biggest wedge between myself and any sort of deism.

Sorry if this is a little bit rambling. I'm very anxious to see the responses of others both here and in the 'religious persons' section.
12.1.2005 3:05pm
An Enigman:
I want what is best for me. I also want what is best for society because I have to live in it, as do those I love and/or care about. It's about trying to get the best situation possible.

As for personal codes of conduct, there are many reasons to hold some sort of code: so that people know they can trust you; so as to make a good example for others to follow; because it is the best thing to do (for society, &c.) and one simply practices what they preach; or simply having a high moral character will be beneficial to one's self.

Also, the question asked would also be applicable to those who follow religions where one does not fear being smited or what not.
12.1.2005 3:06pm
Cold Warrior:
As other commenters have already noted, it is impossible to find a single source for the moral beliefs that guide my behavior. To be honest, I stopped worrying about it a long time ago. Suffice to say I conform my behavior to what is generally regarded as acceptable -- indeed honorable -- by the community in which I live and work. The closest I come to a guiding principle would be the old-fashioned "do unto others as you would have done to yourself." Immanuel Kant couldn't (and didn't) say it any better.

In recent years I have become somewhat more aggressive in my defense of my system of morality, which is not grounded in any belief in an afterlife. Example: religious people I work with will sometimes make comments that they cannot trust in the goodness of nonreligious persons. My response: if I must say so myself, my behavior is more worthy of praise as altruistic than theirs. I try to act responsibly and avoid doing harm to others simply because I want to, and not with the expectation that my seemingly altruistic behavior will be "rewarded" in some future life. Example: we had considered hiring a Mormon. The person in charge of the hiring made a comment praising him for his altruistic behavior in adopting five foreign-born children, and noted that he actually wanted to adopt more. His interest in adopting these children may have been motivated by a desire to rescue these children from a life of poverty. But in Mormon doctrine, one's status in the afterlife is rather directly tied to the size of one's family. Was his motivation truly "altruistic?" Maybe, but maybe not. If I do some "good" on earth that does not benefit me in this world, but that I believe will benefit me in some future world, is that behavior truly "altruistic?" If Mohammad Atta truly expected to be rewarded by a harem of 70 virgins at his feet was his act of terrorism a "sacrifice?"
12.1.2005 3:06pm
That is to say, I may in fact not be irreligious, depending on how one defines the term, but I don't look to for my laws anything like any of the divine entities major religions look to for theirs.
12.1.2005 3:07pm
Neal R. (mail):
They only seem like moral "axioms" because it's so difficult to prove them. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to do so. Kant laid a pretty good groundwork.
12.1.2005 3:09pm
For me, the answer is simple: Empathy.

Whenever I am made aware of a situation where someone is wronged, I cannot prevent myself from imagining, and thus feeling, what that person's pain must be like.

So if I were to willfully victimize someone, I would also be victimizing myself.
12.1.2005 3:14pm
Preferred Customer (mail):
I guess I reject the starting premise that "[a]t some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate." While this may be technically correct, I think the point at which you "must" reach that axiom is so basic as to make the question misleading.

For example: It is, perhaps, impossible to "logically" demonstrate that it is better to not be in pain than to be in pain. One can demonstrate this observationally, both through one's own experience and in noting that others will (generally) attempt to avoid pain, but one cannot really demonstrate it "logically." Similar, though inverse, rules apply to pleasure.

Does this put an axiom such as "do that which avoids pain" or "do that which maximizes pleasure" on the same plane as an axiom such as "do that which God tells you to do?" I don't think so, which is why I think the question can be misleading. The value or "good" that comes from the first two axioms is, I take it, both self-evident to every sentient being and observable on an empirical basis. The value of the third (regarding God) is neither self-evident nor observable, and requires instead a belief about the fundamental nature of reality that cannot be proven based on existing evidence.

There are obviously a large number of logical constructs that you could build on the two axioms I've described above, and the shape of those constructs are well outside the scope of this discussion. It seems to me, though, based on our current experience and knowledge of the world, this is the only place it makes any sense to begin, and ultimately must be the irreducible bedrock on which we attempt to have logical discussions of morality and ethics.
12.1.2005 3:19pm
Article III:
But why is harming others undesirable or wrong?
12.1.2005 3:26pm
DelVerSiSogna (mail):
I have, and try to adhere to, certain moral views because the world in which I do so seems, in an almost aesthetic sense, better to me than the one in which I don't. Morality is a heightened aesthetic sense that takes all of life as its object.
12.1.2005 3:28pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
Despite being quite anti-Christian, I like the writings of C.S. Lewis. He argued in The Case for Christianity that one could distinguish between moral imperatives and mere social constructs by comparing different cultures. He pointed out that no culture has a very different morality, only slightly different; cultures disagree on how many mates one can have, or under what conditions violence is acceptable, but no culture holds that, say, it's okay to kill somebody just because they annoy you, or that it's okay to steal somebody's property, or double-cross your family. He held that this meant certain moral laws were inherent and universal, just like mathematical laws (pi is also not a cultural construct).

I found this very convincing. I was not convinced, however, by the next part of his argument: that this demonstrated that there was a God as understood by Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
12.1.2005 3:31pm
Splunge (mail):
Evil is ugly.
12.1.2005 3:34pm
Fred Vincy (www):
This is an excellent question, and one that I acknowledge I have not thought through for myself as fully as I might have.

I am firmly an athiest, and have equally firm views of right and wrong (and honorable and dishonorable) on a wide variety of subjects. It may be possible to derive a core set of axioms that support my various ethical beliefs, but honestly that would be post hoc reasoning at best and impossible at worst. Given that, I would prefer to keep my axioms at this more general level: (1) right and wrong are meaningful concepts; (2) it is possible for human beings, through experience, observation, and honest reflection that weighs not just one's own perspective but the perspective of others, to discern right from wrong; and (3) since it is possible to do so, it is right to do so (this arguably is not an axiom, since it follows from the nature of "right", which is itself axiomatic). Said differently, making ethical judgments is part of our nature (or what we have evolved to do).
12.1.2005 3:35pm
paulhager (mail) (www):
I quit worrying about logical axioms related to behavior a long time ago - probably once I started buying into socio-biology. Fact is, as social animals, "moral behavior" is selected for. That genetically determined moral behavior we call a "conscience". I have a conscience whether I want one or not. It tells me what to do, I listen. End of story.

Obviously, there is somewhat more to it than that but I'm limiting my answer to the question of axioms or first principles with respect to morality. That's a question for philosphy, an intellectual endeavor I consider a waste of time. If you want to understand moral behavior, look to science, not philosophy.
12.1.2005 3:39pm
Joel W (mail):
I think I'm along the lines of Ron. The capacity for empathy is what creates the non-believer's capacity for morality. Clearly, as a non-believer, I think the capacity for empathy comes from evolutionary explanations, but this does not mean that my morality is evolutionary or self-interested in nature.

Daniel Dennett points out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (a fantastic book) that we are constricted, guided hosts, but we often overcome these desires through cultural evolution.

Empathy leads many non-believers in many different directions. It leads some towards the Kantian view--that we ought to do no wrong to others. It leads me to a more Utilitarian view--the first goal is to make as many people well off as possible, depending on how you define well-off.

There are certain things for which I, and probably many other non-believers, feel that are just wrong for which we are sometimes unable to provide a logical explanation.

For example, my Utilitarian leanings lead me to think that I should care as much about any one person throughout the world as I do about my mother, but I am sure this is not true. I don't doubt that it is logically inconsistent, but I do not think it to be immoral. I think this has some justification in empathetic reasoning--others understand that I ought to care more about my mother.

I think Ron, above, implies that it is in his self-interest to be moral because of empathy. I do not think this is right, just as the arguments that because altruism developed from Evolutionary Psychology, that it therefore must be self-interested. Instead, these capacities for altruism and empathy, coupled with cultural evolution and language, have allowed us to develop an objective morality. In being able to process how others feel, a non-believer can then make a judgement that morality comes from maximizing the feelings of others.

Eugene also asked above about animals and how we judge what deserves moral status. The best argument I have seen is that it is the capacity to suffer that gives something moral status. It is likely why most non-believers do not feel queezy about early stage abortion--there is no suffering except for that which is self-inflicted, but even non-believers feel very queezy as there is a capacity for suffering in later terms. Likewise, I could never bring myself to hurt a dog (unless of course it was hurting me or it was in Paris Hilton's bag, but really I'd be putting that dog out of its own misery ;-)), but I have no problem squishing a spider. I don't think spiders suffer, or have the capacity to suffer. There is no cognition in a spider.

So, in some: the ability to have morality for a non-believer comes from empathy. Then we must judge how to go about that, which are the Kantian/Utilitarian arguments. Then we judge what deserves moral status through what can suffer, which is closely tied to empathy.
12.1.2005 3:41pm
jimbino (mail):
In his Age of Reason, Tom Paine said of the Bible and its morality:

There are matters in that book, said to be done by the express command of God, that are as shocking to humanity, and to every idea we have of moral justice, as any thing done by Robespierre, by Carrier, by Joseph le Bon, in France, by the English government in the East Indies, or by any other assassin in modern times. When we read in the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, etc., that they (the Israelites) came by stealth upon whole nations of people, who, as the history itself shews, had given them no offence; that they put all those nations to the sword; that they spared neither age nor infancy; that they utterly destroyed men, women and children; that they left not a soul to breathe; expressions that are repeated over and over again in those books, and that too with exulting ferocity; are we sure these things are facts? are we sure that the Creator of man commissioned those things to be done? Are we sure that the books that tell us so were written by his authority?

As a scientist, I can't believe in believing, let alone in a creator, much less in the murderous God of the Bible. My morals, similar to those of animals, consist of: Seek pleasure, avoid pain. This often implies observing the rights of others and cooperating with them, as do even the ants and elephants.
12.1.2005 3:43pm
sbw (mail) (www):
Better addressed in conversation than in monolog... and dealt with at my

1) To bootstrap a society participants need to agree on a minimal framework and, unfortunately, religious beliefs do not readily transfer from one culture to another. [Believe me! No! Believe ME!...]

2) A framework that works has to be able to be deduced independently across cultures, urged on by the merest of suggestions. [Please think back to an experience where you thought you were correct and later proved not to be.]

3) So everyone, regardless of culture, carries a map of reality in their mind that is not necessarily accurate, but that needs to be as accurate as possible to plan one's best future. But how can we know when we are in error? [Thus the first simple wisdom: Humility. Sometimes we think we are right, not because we are right, but simply because we think we are right.]

4) Projecting experience over time, people develop a sense of time and one's place in it. A distinguishing characteristic of humanity is the skill to plan -- to predict different futures and the consequences of actions.

5) From humility, the sense of time, and recursion [thinking about thinking] comes the spark of self-regulated learning and an appreciation of the value of community -- to sharpen our mental map.

6) The next simple wisdom that springs from valuing community is the sense that other people live their lives as acutely as each of us lives our own -- Reciprocity. [Leading to the Confucian Golden Rule -- Don't do to others what you don't want done to you.]

7) From these simple wisdoms it is possible to manufacture a moral umbrella open to anyone who chooses to agree to it. And, voila, in the tangle of the mind, mankind has manufactured a safety net that sets humanity apart from the amoral actions of, say, a seal that nips the fins off of a fish to play games with the terrified and helpless prey.

Meanwhile, religion maintains its place to order one's own soul, but society develops using more useful tools. Remember, we are in a race towards civilization that there is no guarantee civilization will win. No. This is no game. But it is my hobby and I enjoy it. Have you seen the graffiti: "Well, Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of western civilization?" "I think it would be a good idea!"

If this appears oversimplified, I'd be pleased to expand. Our schools sometimes overlook that the great minds over the last 2500 years have turned to address the simple daily problems of living.
12.1.2005 3:46pm
I find that my life is more enjoyable when I when I'm true to what I believe is morally right. It's not usually obvious why any given 'moral' action is in my own self interest, but I find that the more I act in ways that benifit others the happier I am on the whole. I don't mean to say I always or even often act this way, but the more I try the more satisfied I am with life. I have no idea why this is; evolution, God, cultural stigma, psychology all seem plausible to me, but I don't have to understand the mechanism to enjoy a good thing.
12.1.2005 3:46pm
Cornellian (mail):
An interesting description of the problem, with a hint of the math (rather than philosophy) background of the author. It's a question that philosophers have speculated endlessly on for centuries.

I think that, partly as a combination of genetic hard wiring and partly as a combination of social conditioning, the vast majority of people feel an instinctive aversion to the idea of harming someone else, with the greater the harm, the greater the aversion. Given enough incentive this can be overcome (e.g. you get $10,000 for being rude to someone - big reward versus trivial harm) and for some people this instinct is missing (again probably some genetic defect or poor social conditioning or both) but by and large I think that's the fundamental motivating principle.

There are questions underlying this. Should it be a fundamental principle? Does it benefit society as a whole (rather than just the individual) if this is a fundamental principle? But I think this is the basic idea.

I'm not even sure this answer differs all that much between religious and non-religious people. After all every religion I'm aware of (certainly Christianity) has a basic notion against harming someone who's done nothing wrong and presumably both Christians and non-Christians, agnostics and athiests would all feel badly doing so regardless of whether (in the case of the Christian) some specific scriptural prohibition could be found against the specific action in question. In other words, a Christian would have the same aversion to harming other people that an athiest would have, even if God were completely silent on that issue.
12.1.2005 4:10pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I can tell you what I thought when I was an irreligious person. I was sitting in a logic class one evening at West Coast University, and I found myself saying, "Is there some way to reduce my morality to a series of assumptions and logical arguments?" I spent quite some time trying to do so--and found the results terribly unsatisfying. There were assumptions that seemed right to me, but I had no basis for them. Not surprisingly, within a year, I had become a Christian.
12.1.2005 4:20pm
James of England:
It is kind of a truism of missionary work that humans cannot convert other humans, only God can. Humans just educate and provide the setting and context.

This is really what is meant. Obviously, objectively it is no more rational (Pascal aside) to believe in the Trinity than to believe in Allah, nor to believe in Allah than to believe that Allah doesn't exist. That's kind of the point of irreducible beliefs. Either you believe them or you don't.

To put it another way, we don't really choose them. If you are choosing to change an irreducible belief, it's assumedly on the basis of a deeper belief, suggesting that the changed one wasn't as irreducible as you'd first thought. I know that the "you just know" response seems lame, but there really is no other way of arriving at any of these positions. Not Atheism, not Agnosticism, not Hinduism or Episcopalianism.
12.1.2005 4:29pm
How about some ancient pagan philosophy? Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, the Stoics, and even the Epicureans all went to great lengths to show that being immoral or unjust leads to a miserable or unhappy life in this world by making the case for the superiority of the goods of the soul (honor, justice and virtue)--or "pure" pleasures in the case the Epicureans--over what they deemed to be the vulgar and illusory pleasures that motivate unjust behavior.
12.1.2005 4:31pm
lucia (mail) (www):
A rule to determine that an action is truly immoral:

If even one person is allowed to choose a certain acttion unilaterally, and exercises it unpunished, then people must protect themselves or their property.

Example: If any individual (be it a despot like S. Hussein, or just a criminal) is permitted kill anyone they want, and the choice is theirs alone, then each person in society must take steps to protect themselves.

Applying the rule means letting an individual decide to go out and kill someone is immoral.

There are other rules, and this one could be better expressed, but this is one I can think of now. I hope the gist of the rule is comprehensible!
12.1.2005 4:32pm
ajf (mail) (www):
self interest. that, and because it comes down to human decency.
12.1.2005 4:44pm
Eugene, I find your question somewhat puzzling. All belief-sets have foundational principles; why is a foundation based on, e.g., an unsupported belief that one owes significant duties to other members of society as a condition of membership, less "plausible" than a belief-set that bottoms out at "Do what God tells me to do"? I've never found it any less plausible, and I suppose that's my answer to your question.
12.1.2005 4:57pm
It would be logically inconsistent, essentially crazy, for someone to say they really do want others to force them to do things that in fact they do not want to do.

In effect, I am challenging your premise. I believe that this is logically self-evident, practically a tautology... But it is the foundational fact that leads my fundamental beliefs about how to act and how to expect others to act.

Crazy Craig: I don't want to do it.

Sane Sam: OK. I won't force you to.

Crazy Craig: I want you to force me to do it.

Sane Sam: You mean you really do want to do it but can't bring yourself to do it without someone to providing additional motivation to get you to do it?

Crazy Craig: No. I really don't want to do it. This is not the sort of situation where I really do want to do it but can't bring myself to do it on my own.

Sane Sam: Well, if you really don't want to do it then I won't force you to.

Crazy Craig: No! I don't want to do it AND I want you to force me to do it.

Sane Sam: That's crazy.

Crazy Craig: Exactly.

There is no logical basis for any person to claim that she gets to be the only person out of six billion who gets to force other people do what she wants even while still being free from anybody else forcing her to do what they want.

Meglomanical Meg: I don't want you to force me to do things I don't want to do.

Sane Sarah: The same is true for me. I suggest that we agree that I won't try to force you to do things you don't want to do and you won't try to force me to do things I don't want to do.

Meglomanical Meg: No. I want to be able to force you to do things you don't want do, but I don't want you to be able to do the same to me.

Sane Sarah: So you'd be my master and I'd be your slave?

Meglomanical Meg: Yes. I believe that it is possible to live in a world where others can't force me to do things I don't want to do while I get to force them to do things I want to do.

Sane Sarah: Only a meglomaniac would expect a world where they are the master and everyone else is their slave.

Meglomanical Meg: Exactly.

The only sane conclusion to me seems to be that no one, not even me, should be allowed to initiate force against anyone else. (Of course, there's nothing wrong with defending yourself or others from being forced to do things we don't want to do.)

Call it "libertarianism" or "the golden rule", but to me it is just the way things are.

I happen to like the incidental consequences as well. Without the initiation of force there would be no murder, rape, kidnapping, mugging, etc.
12.1.2005 5:01pm
Michael Patrick Gibson (mail):

Your idea of a basic moral axiom from which others may be derived bears a striking resemblance to Kelsen's idea of the "Grundnorm" or in Hart's idiom, a "rule of recognition." The underlying thought seems to be that when we ask whether a particular law or rule is valid, we are asking if it has been created by a process stipulated by the rule of recognition or if it can be derived from it. The U.S. Constitution would be one such rule of recognition and particular laws the valid laws that stand in a proper relation to it. Now here's the interesting part. In Plato's dialogue, Euthyphro, the question that is posed reverberates down to this very debate. You might recall that the dilemma presented in that dialogue, though here in this post admittedly pared down, is "Is it good because God commands it?" or "Does God command it because it's good?" If we accept the second horn of the dilemma, then the idea of God seems to be redundant because there is something over and above Him. Though perhaps he has a more complete knowledge of the good than we ever could. This would flow from his omniscience. On the other hand, from God's omnipotence, we might seize the first horn of the dilemma. We might decide, with Abraham, that God's command to kill his son, Jacob, is good because He commands it. But then can it ever be right or in any sense good to kill our own son, even though God commands it?

The Rule of recognition or Grundorm is faced with similar conceptual problems. Is what the Grundnorm commands good because the basic moral axiom commands it? Or does it command what it is already good?
12.1.2005 5:05pm
Looks like I may have violated the rule for this thread. A little more detail, then. I *do* believe, strongly, that (A) I owe significant duties to other members of my society, and to a slightly lesser extent, any human being anywhere, solely by virtue of my being a member of this society (or in the latter case, human). I'm not sure I believe that belief-sets are founded on discrete axioms that can be identified as truth-statements, but Belief (A) above is pretty close to foundational for me. Also near the core is a belief that (B) human societies are better off if the individual members police their own behavior by assuming and internalizing obligations to other members. It doesn't particularly matter to me if those duties are derived from beliefs like mine, or religious beliefs, so long as they all have nearly the same content -- which, by and large in this country, they do. A third principle at or near the core is that (C) I enjoy being a member of such a society, and I demonstrate that by (1) attempting to stay within the boundaries myself, and (2) policing those boundaries by criticizing others who fall outside of them.
12.1.2005 5:09pm
David Pittelli (mail) (www):
The answer lies in childhood.

Like all of us, in childhood I robbed (e.g., grabbed toys) and assaulted, and I was likewise robbed from and assaulted. Being a victim hurt. Victimizing did not automatically -- at least at first -- hurt, but eventually it did through guilt and empathy. This conditioning may have been due to the horrible sound of other children crying (which even pre-empathy newborns find highly disturbing) or due to shaming and other punishment by our mothers and other caretakers. I still remember several incidents of guilt felt in my early childhood.
12.1.2005 5:17pm
sbw (mail) (www):
Adding to my post above:

If Godel's theorem is correct, philosophers are bound to fail -- we cannot build supports from the surface of the storm-tossed sea of uncertainty upon which we drift to the firmament at the bottom.

We can only lash ourselves together to float as best we can. In other words, is yours a workable question? And isn't my answer a sensible way to address that which remains unasked -- How wisely to survive?
12.1.2005 5:18pm
Kevin D. (mail):
Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can't logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle? Or do you think that you can indeed logically support your choice of axiom, without calling on some other axioms that you can't logically support — and, if so, how?

Many philosophers, greater and deeper thinkers than I, have attempted to find a logical proof for various moral axioms. But, as you observe, none of them, at least to my satisfaction are self-supporting. They all eventually fall back on what you term a moral axiom that is not logically verifiable.

As several posters have noted, various evolutionary biologists/anthropologists have attempted to establish an evolutionary hypothesis for why humans may have an "innate" moral sense. Of course having an "innate" moral sense is not "logical". Nor is it a moral axiom it simply is. Unfortunately the most profound statement I can offer is akin to what several have indicated: there are certain behaviors that just intrinsically seem wrong, regardless of society or law. In a sense it give me pleasure to avoid those behaviors, or conversely I have very little inclination to engagein those behaviors. I can construct logical rationalizations but I don't spend my days doing this, I behave the way I do largely unconsciously, without a great deal of deliberation. I have little desire to hurt others for no reason unless in defense of self, others or my perceived "property". I have no desire to rape. Although I covet others property (and sometimes their wives) I have little difficulty feeling that stealing is wrong and that it diminishes me to engage in it.

In the end, I behave the way I do primarily because of the way I feel/believe about it. Logic and thought may help me make more difficult decisions, but more in the sense that they help me clarify my feelings about a particular action. I don't act/refrain from acting because it is logic, but because logic has helped me to feel comfortable/uncomfortable with the action/result.

Interestingly, if I and the majority of other people behave properly, largely because of our indescribable, inherent beliefs/feelings and not based on a provable set of logical principles, what does that say about crime and criminal behavior. If the criminal simply lacks those inherent moral constraints does that make his/her behaviour immoral or simply outside of majority consent to what is proper?
12.1.2005 5:22pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
If I can kill you, you can kill me. When I say "murder is wrong" I really mean I'll give up my right to kill others if they give up their right to kill me. It has nothing to do with morals.

On a side note, it really scares the crap out of me when religious people say "if there is no god, then what stops me from killing/raping/torturing you for fun?" As much as I hate religion, when I hear religious people respond to atheism/agnosticism with such a question, I'm sadly thankful that they believe the stuff they do, becaues according to their own words their religion is all that stands between their becoming mass murderers.

Morality doesn't come from god, it comes from basic principles of economics coupled with common sense.
12.1.2005 5:23pm
Jason DeBoever (mail):
Well, I've not yet read others comments -- I will, but i don't want to have them color my own response.

I think the biggest part is the recognition that social constructs, in particular religious ones have been vital in the creation of our societies. That is to say, without these moral principles none of us would exist. Relying on each other to recognize this and all act together in the best interest of the whole would be as reliable as negotiating rush hour without traffic laws, signs or lights. Religion serves the purpose in our society of those traffic laws on behavior. I'm rather "irreligious" myself, but I also recognize that if too many people get irreligious we're all in a heap of trouble, because, just ask any former communist -- vast numbers of people will not act in the best interest of the whole without the concept of the "Great Traffic Cop" to compel them.

The second reason is more biological. Self Awareness in humans exists on a sliding scale, based on pattern recognition, heavily biased toward visual patterns. The more something looks like us, or behaves in a way we associate without ourselves, the closer we are drawn to a self-protection instinct. Hence our protective hierarchy goes something like this Self->Family->Others Humans->Animals with a traits we identify with->etc.

As a final note: Many irreligious people are in fact anti-religious people -- that is neither a thoughtful nor useful position.
12.1.2005 5:29pm
Trevor (mail) (www):
I don't think that moral rules exist outside of a context where you have human beings around to make them up and follow them (or not). So I've tried to adopt the most metaphysicall spare moral axiom possible, and with the most universal appeal to other actual humans. Spareness keeps me out of deontology, and I think that the kinds of nightmare choice scenarios a utilitarian might dream up are a pretty compelling argument on their own against absolute moral rules. So I stay focused on outcomes.

I'm honestly not sure if the "axiom" should be something like "when people are happy, that's good" or something that explicitly talks about preference satisfaction, to deal with Socrates unsatisfied/pig satisfied problems. There are porblems with the idea of preferences too, so I usually just go by the former as a rough-and-ready guide.

I think you can consider most moral codes to be sort of heuristics for welfare maximization, and happily the broader ones seem to be largely co-extensive. There are weird scenarios around theedges where they conflict, but I feel like we can cross those bridges when we get to them. By really any decent moral standard, there's plenty of work we can do first without worrying about them.
12.1.2005 5:35pm
I think that the axiom is consequentialism - society should be constructed to create the potential for positive outcomes for as many people as possible. I don't think that there are 'morals.' Killing is obviously not always wrong. "Stealing" really is a loaded term because it assumes some prior property right.

The general rules that I have turned into my own personal morals are those that I think benefit society and myself. We can produce more goods, services and happiness if people are allowed to pursue whatever ends they want, free from coercion so long as they do not impede others from pursuing their own ends.

This principle obviously has serious flaws because of the distibutive element. However, given diminishing marginal returns on happiness, I think that we don't run into too many problems with rules that will greatly benefit the many at great expense of the few. Things like slavery cannot be supported in the long run, even though they might be defended on consequentialist grounds in the short run.

I respect people's rights to invent morality because that is a world that they would want a live in. Coercion being bad. Private property and a right to self-determiniation being good.

I just don't buy into the fact that there is anything inherently wrong in any act. Humans have just evolved to generally agree that a few types of acts lead to a lot of adverse consequences, not the least of which is massive uncertainty, and so we just consider those things immoral.
12.1.2005 5:39pm
John R. Mayne (mail):
The underlying moral axiom for me is utilitarianism, creating the greatest good for all.

Some things I've seen on utilitarianism, and my thoughts:

1. "This is, 'The ends justify the means.'" This is certainly correct. But the ends of, say, lying, include an increased propensity for lying by the liar. Lying is normally wrong because of the harm done, and in close cases, lies should be avoided because of the possibility of self-delusion over the overall effect of the lies.

But the ends do justify the means. (I'm known to be an honest guy, but if you ask me where the infants are that you want to strangle, you're getting a lie.)

2. Eugene cites various forms of the "greatest good" calculus; I'm for "greatest good for all sentient beings." Animals count, though not (generally) nearly as much as humans.

3. The execution of utilitarianism is based on imperfect information and can lead to bad results based on this. (Presumption 1: Canadians are pesky. Presumption 2: Peskiness is bad. Conclusion: Eliminate Canada.)

This is obviously a legitimate criticism; execution may be marred by self-delusion, ignorance, or other factors. It is quite easy to reach opposite conclusions with utilitarianism based on underlying presumptions.

However, the underlying ethical view is still good, in my opinion.

There are positive side benefits to this - one tends to view oneself as a good person. I'm prone to healthy charitable donations; I have a job that is more fulfilling but less renumerative than others in the field; and I'm having a generally charming life. But if it comes to something where my loss leads to a higher gain for the world, I'm inclined to do that.

Still, utilitarianism is not martyrdom. It's taking actions with the welfare of others in significant consideration.

I logically support this axiom through the belief that greater good is good. I am all too aware that there are many amoral thugs who are quite happy with their lives, unfettered by consideration for others. I think we should condemn them, whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

12.1.2005 5:41pm
classical man:
For an answer to this question you might want to look at the thoughts of people who lived in times before Christ and widespread adoption of mainstream religion. Moreover, and I would certainly think Kant and many other Western/Classical thinkers would take issue with your claim that moral axioms have no logical foundation.
12.1.2005 5:44pm
Many have already noted the game theoretic results that point to emergent morality. This looks to me to be correct, but I do believe (there's that word) that it goes deeper; my belief is: math underlies physics, physics underlies chemistry, chemistry underlies biology, biology underlies evolution, evolution recapitulates math via game theory.

I believe morality to be a direct consequence of the mathematical underpinnings of reality, and have found experientially that each time I try to ignore reality, things go poorly.
12.1.2005 5:52pm
Half Sigma (mail) (www):
We are genetically programmed to believe murder is wrong. Those without such a genetic predispositiong got in trouble with the society they lived in and were punished in such a way that prevented them from reproducing and spreading their genes. Thus were such genes culled from the gene pool.
12.1.2005 5:57pm
Law Student Kate (mail):
With the exception of psychopaths who suffer from some sort of neurological defect, I don't think that humans have any choice but to experience morality. Our sense of morality doesn't come from a set of logical principles, it's simply a biological phenomenon we can't escape, like our desire for food or love. Religious people explain it away by making up imaginary mythical creatures. Some secular people might try to give it a logical basis. But morality at its base is a biological phenomenon, not an intellectual choice.

Babies take years to reach maturity and independence, and they couldn't do it without empathy and cooperation from their fellow humans. So we evolved to experience those things, and the attendant moral code they create. I can't help but know that others suffer. I can't help but know that suffering is bad. Thus, my moral code directs me to avoid causing suffering whenever and wherever I can.

Empathy, a sense of fairness, a sense of "mine" and "yours"...these are all selected for evolutionary traits, nothing more. They give rise to inescapable moral codes, and it's only after the fact that we try to rationally justify them.

So here's the thing: even though I know intellectually that moral codes are just human constructs that have no independent importance, I'm still compelled to follow them. As far as "the universe" is concerned, a baby in a burning building is meaningless. But I could no more allow a baby to burn than I could resist a hamburger after starving for 2 weeks. It's unnatural for humans to break their moral codes.
12.1.2005 6:01pm
Joshua (mail):
One way to describe the concept of morality is as a set of principles which, early on in human history, came to be generally recognized as sound guidelines for one's conduct, in word and deed, toward one's fellow human beings, for the purpose of fostering good interpersonal relations and a placid and harmonious society. Since these principles seemed to be both universal and self-evident, it wouldn't have been much of a leap for early religious leaders to conclude that these principles must have been inspired by God (or insert your favorite deity here) - or to recognize that attributing these principles to God is an effective way to persuade the faithful to internalize them.

In other words, I've reached the conclusion that while religion is not the source of morality for its adherents, it does serve to reinforce morality - and that one of the ways in which it does so is by claiming that it - or to be more precise, the God at its center - is in fact the actual source of morality.
12.1.2005 6:04pm
gbrown (mail):
If I understand it correctly, the question asks how irreligious persons can logically justify their belief in moral precepts. There are undoubtedly many reasons why we in fact do believe certain things. From a certain psychological perspective, irreligious belief may be the same behavior as religious belief. For all I know (which is not much) there may be a genetic disposition for certain beliefs. If logical justification for irrelgious belief can be separated from the many variables that give rise to it, then that justification seems to be personal choice. We are justified in believing because we choose it. Choice does not make belief good, wise, or intelligent, but it makes it the responsibility of the believer.
12.1.2005 6:07pm
randal (mail):
There's no pure moral axiom at the root of my beliefs. Life isn't a formal mathematical system.

It's much more like the judicial system. You make decisions on a case-by-case basis, using past wisdom, accounting for context, and following a set of broad (and sometimes contradictory!) moral guidelines.

The set of moral guidelines can come from anywhere - mine I guess are rooted in a combination of built-in empathy and social pressures.

I recently realized many religious people are afraid that without the moral compass provided by religion, they (or others) wouldn't have the ability to morally guide themselves (and end up socially destructive). Those of us who have no problem morally guiding ourselves often overlook this legitimate fear.
12.1.2005 6:17pm
David Pittelli (mail) (www):
Most or all of these posts seem to be compatible and reasonable ways of looking at this matter.

Moral codes are human constructs, but I wouldn't say that they are "just human constructs" because that implies that they are basically arbitrary or morally insignificant. No doubt the reason most of us are disturbed by other humans in distress, especially crying children, is Darwinian. And indeed, a sociopath is far more likely than the rest of us to die young. Reason alone does not give us morality, but reason combined with the Darwinian imperative (e.g., strongly preferring not to die) does do so.

So "do unto others as you would have them do to you" is both:
1) a moral command which assumes that we want to be treated well.
2) an empirical statement similar to "he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword," or "most people play tit-for-tat" -- a reminder that even if killing isn't actually immoral, you should refrain lest others agree that killing you isn't actually immoral.
12.1.2005 6:27pm
Hmmm. At least I'm not out of place, since I can offer two reasons that roughly coincide with many of the other commenters. (1) Sociological dogmas - you're raised to believe that certain things are morally right and wrong and most people are too busy doing other things to really think about challenging them. When was the last time you really stopped and thought about why it's wrong to push that old lady out into traffic? (2) Self-interest - if society declares that it's wrong to steal, and I play by the rules, then nobody would steal from me. The only other plausible explanation I can provide is simply to avoid being hassled. I don't think it's morally wrong to smoke pot, but I don't do it because I have a lot to lose by getting arrested, even if the chances of arrest are very low. The benefits of breaking morality-based rules are not worth the risks.

It may be interesting, however, that the irreligious seem more likely to cite external influences as reasons why they avoid breaking other peoples' moral codes (e.g., I don't want others to do it to me, I want to be left alone, I was raised to comply without thinking about it). None of these reasons seem to allow me to independently create a moral code of my own. Perhaps, as an irreligious person, I'm not capable of understanding morals (which may be, at their core, illogical and unexplainable) but simply go along to get along because that is the easiest way to function in society?
12.1.2005 6:29pm
MatthewC (mail):
I think that neither the axioms of religious or non-religious people are based on any firm foundation, but instead flow very slowly with changes in culture, like continents drifting across the face of the earth. Our culture influences the axioms to optimize them to benefit the culture as a whole. But there are no permanent rules. They change over time. They are determined collectively by society and our brains our wired to identify these rules for the good of mankind.

What I am saying is that I think most of this discussion is a red herring. I think "morale axioms" for philosophy majors are the same as "species preservation instincts" for neuro-biologists. All complex species of creatures have evolved to have a set of instructions designed to protect and help propagate their own species. If we all lied, killed and treated each other poorly, then our species would grow weak, and those sneaky dolphins would make their move and take over the place.

But the rules themselves aren't hard-wired into our brains. We are instinctual programmed to identify and absorb these rules from the culture around us. We aren't born with these moral axioms - we get them from our culture and society as a whole. Sometimes from our friends and family, sometimes from our religious leaders, sometimes from our political leaders, and sometimes from our cultural leaders.

People who are more inclined to receive these cultural instructions thrive. They are considered "good" people, and in healthy societies they rise to become community leaders. People who are less inclined to absorb cultural rules become criminals, and end up in jail.

Religious people can say they come from religion, and non-religious people can say they come from logic; but then why do they change over time? The "morale axioms" are whatever mankind needs them to be.
12.1.2005 6:48pm
Steve K:
Everyone has to live by some code--I suppose we could argue about this (as a separate issue), and certainly I'll admit the code can shift a lot, but I hope at least for the sake of this argument you will accept that people don't act randomly when it comes to what are known as moral issues.

So, if you're going to have any sort of code, whether it'll be rock solid or shifting, you have to get it from somewhere.

Many, especially those in religious traditions, accept a code (or claim to--I'm skeptical, but this is a separate issue) that comes from a supernatural source. The people who are writing in this section, I think, realize how weak, even silly, all the different arguments are for supernatural sources of morality. Thus, they reject them. I don't have time to go into the many arguments that go against supernatural sources for codes--I suppose it should be enough, logically, for our purposes to accept that a certain portion of people reject them. The question then becomes what code will they live by.

This, in fact, has been a (the?) central question of philosophy since Socrates, and has fascinated Western (and others minds) as much as anything in the past 500 years.

Now there are some "natural" explanations as to where our code might come from, and they're not bad. (I'm sorry I have to keep skimming over things, but after all, people have written tomes on all these questions so what am I to do.) Evolutionary studies have explained quite well, for instance, the growth of altruism--even beyond one's own family, or, indeed, species. Once you are able to care for others (essentially a requirement in evolution if you have offspring) you can at least have a seed of a code. Your code, in other words, extends beyond surviving and taking care of yourself.

Once higher intelligence developes, you can start thinking abstractly about such things, and develop codes of morality. (Complex morality belongs to humans, but there are arguably rudimentary moral codes in some animals.) Not only do you have the natural moral sentiments born into you, but you can abstractly understand how others feel--empathy--so care about them.

A main question then becomes, once you operate on a higher level than just instinct, how will one live? Once again, I note many cultures will use their abstract thought to create supernatural sources that "give" morality to society, but if you feel their arguments are too weak, you must reject this and come to morality in some other way. (You'd also claim, in fact, they have no basis for morality but a sort of magic that, if investigated, disappears--that they're really only using morality they themselves believe in and created, not something that was given from on high and can't be argued with.)

So the question becomes how to live life, and how to set up society. There are "natural" rights you might find--in nature, you can walk about as you like, take food as you like, essentially do what you want and believe what you want, as long as you can survive. But you might realize (especially since it is pretty hard to live on your own, whether humans or social animals or not) life is better and easier in a society. Less violent, easier to get food, more fun, etc. So just for your own happiness (which is certain one reason you set up society), you accept living with others. Once you do this, you have to create rules to live with others. And you may have to give up some of your "natural" rights.

What code or codes do you get then? Well, there are too many to go into. Perhaps not as many as religions, but there will be different sentiments from different people in different parts of society. (A big split may be along sex lines.)

The most famous modern responses as to why and how to set up a society--create a social contract which is part and parcel of your morality--were probably by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. And since then, we've had numerous people filling in the blanks. (I guess I shouldn't forget Kant, who certainly is central when it comes to understanding the world and morality, even if you don't agree with him.)

So it starts with both natural feeling--inborn. They may be instinct in animals, but with the addition of abstract thinking, these instincts become moral sentiments. Then there is both the question of how to live the best life for myself, then for others I care about. Then finally the question of how to set up society, so it's smoothly run. The arguments are based on both feelings, situations one finds oneself in, and logic. (I'd claim this is true of all morality, even those that pretend to have a supernatural source.)

Obviously people can feel strongly about these things. Strongly enough to die for them. (Religion might be better at making people die for ideas, since a reward can be promised, but it's not the only way. And if religious people claim it makes no sense to die for an idea if you don't believe in an afterlife (how about religion with no afterlife?), there are at least two answers--the first is the "is life so dear?" category, the other is plenty of people mistakenly fool themselves into dying for false religions, so it's all about feelings, so are the feelings any worse if they "fool" you into dying for something not supernatural?) And, as Hume pointed out, everywhere you look, passions rules. There's logic involved, certainly, but there will almost always be things that are "felt" because, at the very least, no one has perfect information. Furthermore, there are probably unprovable axioms that everyone must accept on one side of another, and it might be based on your feelings, both those you were born with and those you developed and learned as you grew. Maybe, ultimately, you can't "prove" there is right or wrong, but then, neither can anyone who believes in a supernatural source--they have to accept things on faith. But once you reject the supernatural, at least your reasoning can be based on what seems to be taking place in the real world, through the filter of your experience and your biology.
12.1.2005 6:57pm
I am an intuitionist; I believe people are born with a moral sense analogous to their other senses, and through this moral sense we become aware of moral facts, including the "foundational" ones Eugene refers to, just as through our other senses we become aware of physical facts (and, just as with the physical senses, some people are born with a flawed or missing moral sense). This moral sense is often also called "conscience" or "moral intuition." It is through reflection and contemplation of difficult questions that conscience becomes acute and reliable. I believe moral facts are objective, in that their truth does not depend on any person's perspective or biological origins, any more than the truth of a physical fact depends on such factors.

Some books for people interested in this meta-ethical view are Grant Sterling's "Ethical Intuitionism And Its Critics" and Michael Huemer's "Ethical Intuitionism". (Huemer also has some webbed papers on the subject at
12.1.2005 7:03pm
Brock (www):
By "moral axiom," you could mean one of two things:

(1) A moral principle that is not justified based on any other principle, or

(2) A moral principle that is not justified based on any other moral principle.

If Hume's "is-ought gap" thesis is correct (and I'm inclined to think it is), then (2) collapses into (1).

And if Hume's thesis is correct, then the only sort of answer one can give to "Yet why do you accept it?" is a causal explanation. This explanation might appeal to my personal history, evolutionary psychology, Freudian psychology, or any number of other causes.

The interesting philosophical question then is, given whatever cause rise (or sustains) a moral belief M, does knowledge of this cause give me reason to be skeptical about the truth of M.

My perceptual beliefs are not typically justified by other beliefs, but knowledge of their causes does not justify being skeptical about these beliefs. Typically, I believe that there is a dagger before me because there is a dagger before me. However, if I learn that someone has given me a drug that will cause me to hallucinate that there is a dagger before me, I will have reason to be skeptical about the existence of the daggger.

Does knowlege of the genealogy of our moral axioms give us reason to doubt them? Must we postulate an form of "ethical perception" (I believe that X is wrong because X is in fact wrong) to avoid moral skepticism?

I'm inclined to think we must.
12.1.2005 7:03pm
Tom Myers (www):
As a Bible-reading elementary school kid in the very early 60s, I came across the famous Numbers 31:17-18, and my interpretation then was that Moses was speaking for an evil God. Well, a lot of people have thought that. Nowadays I would mainly say that morality is independent of whether God is good or not -- but it's not a question of axioms. I love working with axioms; as a graduate student and then compsci prof I wrote and worked with and graded theorem-provers of various kinds, and sometimes argued about (but never implemented) deontic logic, where maybe you can prove "I ought to do X" and then go do it, based on axioms...but I've also implemented genetic algorithms to breed Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma strategies represented as finite automata, and I find these a lot more convincing. We use axioms to summarize what we feel, and to improve the consistency of our decision-making and communication, but I'd find it hard to believe in a human for whom moral reasoning actually started with axioms.

For the irreligious, "you" are a pattern of ideas, feelings, responses and so forth -- a collection of memes. The collection evolves, over timescales of minutes and of megayears. Morality describes some aspects of your operating system, parts of how you live, parts of how you evaluate the foreseeable consequences of your choices -- including what's worth dying for, or killing for. That doesn't mean that morality is subjective or "relative" in any interesting sense; I don't believe it is. It does mean that I don't try to find "fundamental" axioms for my choices.

Does that seem evasive? Sorry -- I'm just doing the best I can, like most everybody else...
12.1.2005 7:05pm
cogent_observer (mail):
I'll add my two cents, why not. But I'll try and keep it short and sweet.

We all live on the same planet. There's only one planet we can inhabit so far (that we know of) and so in order for this to work, we have to get along.

Humans are social animals, I believe our moral imperatives are inherent to our nature, that is, a result of the cumulative successes of our ancestors in the selection of those who act in ways most favorable to the survival of the population of humans in general. Essentially we are beings who are altruistic to those we know and love (related to) and the flip side of that is that we're a smidge tribalist. But in general, I think morality is based on the fact that humans are social animals and as such we find our identity couched in the communities we belong to and in order for communities to be healthy and thrive, we generally act in ways that are best for the health of the overall whole. If the community is healthy every individual is benefited thus and vice verse.

For a community of organisms whose singularly defining characteristic is their capacity for abstract and rational thought, it just makes sense that our essential axiom is the golden rule. If we ourselves want to live a fulfilling, happy life then we act in ways that will enable the same for everyone else.
12.1.2005 7:48pm
Blar (mail) (www):
Let's keep this simple...

There are lots of things that could happen to me that would be bad for me - I could be robbed, beaten, etc. And there are lots of things that could happen that would be good for me. These things matter. They're important. It makes sense for me to take them into account when I figure out what to do. There are also lots of things that could happen to others that would be bad for them, or good for them, just like some things are bad or good for me. These things also matter. They're important, and worth taking into account in my decisions. I guess you could call that my "moral axiom".

So why do I accept it? Well, mostly because it just seems obvious. The axiom that my decisions should take into account things that matter for others is hardly less plausible than the axiom that I should take into account things that matter for me. Also, doing things that are bad for others just feels wrong. I can't even imagine always setting out to do whatever is most advantageous to me, pretending that what happened to everyone else was irrelevant. What kind of person is that?
12.1.2005 7:58pm
Is Eugene going to come up with a question for his Nietzschean /moral relativist readers who reject morality as well as religion? Because the easiest answer to Eugene's post is to reject morality altogether. I suspect that moral standards are heuristics created so weaker members of our society (everybody falls into this category at certain times in their life) won't do dumb things. The best way to explain something you can't explain but know to be in the common interest is to use social pressure to create a norm in favor of it. For example, we couldn't explain for many years why communism as a form of government was wrong, so we created severe legal and social restrictions on communists and fellow-travelers.
12.1.2005 8:38pm
Wintermute (www):
Axioms sounds like an attempt to secularize commandments. In early times, tribes used religious commandments and taboos to order their societies as a reliable method in a migratory environment without police or prisons. In the next stage of city-states, lords' courts held the hammer over religious judgments, secular laws began to take the place of religious injunctions, and laws evolved from secular edicts to legislated ones.

The rules of either system largely correspond to sociobiological developments, axioms and laws both being attempted verbalizations of social moral consensus. Internalizing the most basic moral principles, the malum in se ones, is the job of parents, who also should stress respect for the greater complexity of the law of malum prohibitum. Internalization can be achieved with or without the aid of religious instruction.
12.1.2005 8:56pm
I want to second those readers who think "axiom" is an inappropriate term. Morality, like all branches of knowledge other than pure mathematics, can't be sensibly reduced to the logical consequences of some set of first principles, except in the trivial sense that you can call anything that's not a strictly logical consequence of something else a first principle.

Basically, my methodology is to engage in serious reflection and try to minimize conflicts between seemingly contrary moral intuitions. Right and wrong are often self-evident, and I work from there.
12.1.2005 8:58pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
My moral axiom is "Try to discern the 'right' thing to do in every situation, then do that." It's hopelessly circular, but that's not to say it's not a helpful reminder about the attitude I want to take as I muddle through this or that moral quandary.

I follow this axiom (however imperfectly) because I find the impulse to do so irresistable (in most cases). I'm sure this is due to a mix of innate and socially conditioned affects and dispositions whose etiology is mostly opaque to me.
12.1.2005 9:07pm
Wintermute (www):
Oh, and about the food chain thing. The Buddha enjoined his disciples from accepting meat from supportive people if the animal had been killed for the occasion of the gift. That struck a balance on the sentient beings thing. Research has shown that plants respond to some stimuli as well; vegetarianism is no absolute answer to eliminating all cruelty when filling one's craw. Not to accept some horror because of one's place in the food chain would be to starve to death or commit suicide upon enlightenment, of course harming oneself. Ergo, when I'm hungry I eat, when I'm thirsty I drink, and I use no magic to extend my life.
12.1.2005 9:28pm
Ben Pugh (mail) (www):
I am not a firm believer in God, though I think it would be great if the Catholic God did exist, and I generally do not behave morally because of any religious compulsion. So I'll put myself in the irreligious side, for now, at least with respect to behaving morally.

Your question is this: "Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can't logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle? "

This is two questions: (1) why do I behave morally? (2) why do I expect/demand others to behave morally?

Why do I behave morally? Because I like to and I dislike behaving in ways society generally considers immoral. I think I'm this way because of evolution, as so many commenters above have argued. Sociopaths simply do not have this genetic aversion to "immoral" behavior.

Why do I expect others to behave morally? Or, to put it another way, what argument can I plausably make to convince others to behave morally? I can do what C.S. Lewis does at the beginning of Mere Christianity and argue that we all "feel" morality and it therefore must exist somehow, or some variant of that argument. This may convince non-sociopaths and is usually the battle ground for most moral argument. I can also argue that it is in the other's best intersts to behave morally, and support that conclusion with evidence. This may even convince the sociopath. If I cannot make an empirical case that it is the other's best interest to behave morally, or as you say "when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle," I do not believe I can convince the sociopath to behave morally.

To a sociopath, an appeal to an absolute morality is meaningless. My personal belief that something is immoral holds no intuitive appeal to a sociopath and I cannot make a logical argument (and I have never seen one made) that objective standards of right and wrong behavior exist. Sure, there are objective behaviors that are better or worse at prodicing a particular result, either a societal result or an individual result. But who can say that one result is "better" than any other result without an absolute referent - i.e., God?

A sociopathic radical environmentalist may very well prefer a world where the majority of human beings are wiped out by a plague. This may even be true even if the sociopath correctly understands what such a world would be like (I'm sure the guy who got himself eaten by a bear truly loved living with bears). If the sociopath has the means of bringing about this result, I see no way to convince him or her that she "ought" not try.
12.1.2005 9:32pm
sbw (mail) (www):
Okay, Eugene, based on the responses, please reformulate the question with greater precision.

My concepts presented above are not a priori Aristotelian universals, nor are they Kantian pure reason. They are not formulaic utilitarian, which self-destructs without assitance, chaotic abdication such as drove Nietzsche mad, or Sartre-like relativism. My goal was to express something I could live by and convince others to do the same. While not universal, they are timeless and universally accessible. Could you ask for more?

12.1.2005 9:40pm
Elliot123 (mail):
People join together in common self interest. I don't want to be murdered, or have my things stolen. Others feel the same way. So, we band together in mutual self interest, accept a common code, and sanction those who don't follow it.

We pass the code to new members of society and socialize them to think of it as the natural way to live. It leads to succesful and prosperous societies. I presume societies that didn't figure this out are no longer with us.
12.1.2005 9:41pm
James B. Shearer:
My feelings about morality are similar to my feelings about grammar. Some things just seem right or wrong. Obviously I have absorbed these notions of right or wrong from the society in which I was born and raised. If I lived in a different society I would doubtlessly have different views about proper grammar or morals.

Clearly someone who is unable to learn grammar or morality is likely to have trouble in any society. So it makes sense to suppose that evolution has given us the capacity to learn grammatical or moral rules and apply them without conscious thought.

To the extent that I reason consciously about morality I believe that society should adopt the moral code that will serve it best. So in doubtful cases I will choose the moral positions that I would like to see my society as a whole adopt. This seems sensible to me and I don't feel any great need to logically justify it.
12.1.2005 9:45pm
John Armstrong (mail):
Back in college my friends and I tried working it out an axiomatic legal system (a lot of us were math/CS people). What axiom did we start with? Well, cleaned up it ran, "Don't [mess] with other people's [stuff]". Simple.
12.1.2005 9:52pm
auntiegrav (mail) (www):
Net Creativity. Schroedinger (yes, the guy who put cats in death trap boxes) deduced that the purpose of Life is to create structure in the universe (anti-entropy). I put it as "net creativity". This means that our Great Purpose is to Fit our universal environment, as all other forms of life, to create USEFUL structure for the future Life that will come. Our net creativity is what we get when we add up all the useful things we contribute to the universe, then subtract the decay or resource depletion that we cause. Societal structure is the way we deal with an environment that is bigger than each of us individually. Imagine you are trying to hack your way through the jungle, while defending yourself against predators. This becomes much easier if you agree not to kill someone in exchange for them defending you against predators while you create a path. The bigger the path you can create, with more people, then the easier it is to acquire and use resources. The easier it is to acquire resources, the more time some part of your society will have to contemplate philosophical morality, and come to agreements about rights, ethics, etc. However, this isn't really needed, and in fact, causes overgrowth of society until they destroy the jungle which provides food. Inventive societies then invented farming. An even quicker, more direct way to acquire the resources of lower life forms without all that mucking about with machetes. Every moral dilemma can be traced to its effect on humanity's net creativity (net useful result). Every religion hints that the ultimate moral authority is The Creator, and most directly state that we are created in that image. If we spend our time living consumptive lives, but using up resources that destroy future generations' ability to survive, then we are just as murderous in our inaction and 'service economics' as someone who uses a gun to kill a specific person in the present. Our society has put value upon the use of resources (creating wealth), but not on the moderation of resource use, or on frugality. We think that people who choose to give up the accoutrement of modern life are quaint and entertaining, while we eat our own grandchildren's food by technologically enabled proxy and religious distraction.
Nature decides who will survive in the long run by this method of net usefulness to all Life. We can either choose to follow this path, or we will eventually be replaced. Most of our morality questions come down to disagreements about what is 'good' or 'bad' based on anecdotal power brokering between various branches of 'leadership' profiteers. Our logical purpose is staring us in the face, and we have to decide the hard questions right now: How do we want our offspring to be able to live, at what level of comfort, and how many of them will nature allow? All the other questions (murder, compassion, exploitation, societal 'rights' -there are no others) are superfluous to the question of what we all are here to accomplish for the universe.
Religion is entertainment, not morality. It's all in the marketing.
12.1.2005 10:13pm
tiefel & lester student (mail):
I've just finished reading through all the quotes on both threads, around 100 at this time. Since I can't criticize, I'll praise; I especially liked Preferred Customer and Bruce.

I accept that there is a moral axiom, external of biology, conditioning or self-interest. I think any of those justifications misses the point of the moral enterprise, and possibly EV's question.

This moral axiom is probably the Golden Rule, but frankly I only think about which moral principle is more important when two rules come in conflict. Nonetheless, I'm confident that there is a fundamental moral axiom, I'm just too lazy to figure out what it is.

The bigger question, as EV correctly stated, is how we irreligious folks justify belief in such an axiom. I'm willing to admit that I accept it on faith. There's nothing supporting it, except maybe the turtles. Or perhaps it just represents the reflective equilibrium between my considered judgments and intuition. Who knows.

That said, there is still (I think) a tremendous difference between my faith and that of religious believers. While I would like to think that at least in theory I could eventually deduce a complete, intelligible and empirically supported moral framework from one core principle using exclusively reason, theists seem to be willing to substitute's God's word on an ad hoc basis for "lesser" moral issues. While acknowledging that it is necessary at the axiomatic level, I would like faith to play as small a role in my belief-set as possible; theists often seem to want the inverse. Even those theists who believe that logic is a gift from God to understand His ways generally seem to agree that where the two conflict, God wins. Though they often take great pains to show that these two do not conflict, at least in principle it seems to me that they would have to accept the primacy of God in such a situation.

Of course, the rebuttal is that the minimal role of faith is a second axiom. In response to this critique: oops.
12.1.2005 10:44pm
Thomas Roland (mail):
I haven't sufficiently analyzed or researched the issue either about my moral standards or those of my fellow atheists to be able to adequately answer the question. But then, I doubt that theists have, either. I suspect (strongly) that a good scientific research project would find that representative samples of theists and atheists are indistinguishable in their moral BEHAVIORS nothwithstanding their beliefs or theories about the bases for those behaviors. My own conclusion from such a result would be consistent with my present belief that religious precepts may follow from, but certainly do not precede and/or cause, such behaviors.
12.1.2005 10:54pm
jgshapiro (mail):
Isn't the answer intuition? Maybe this comes from biology and maybe it comes from the way you were brought up (nature/nurture redux), but I can't believe it comes from game theory or a set of axioms that have been worked out in advance.

After all, how many Joe sixpack athiests have worked through a prisoners dilemma before deciding whether to raid their company's pension fund or whether they should leave a note on the parked car they just sideswiped? And even if the prisoner's dilemma would lead to anarchy if everyone raided the pension fund or no one left a note, if only you did it, what would be the consequence? More likely than not, you would get away with it. But you probably wouldn't raid the pension fund and you would leave a note because of social pressure and conscience (internal social pressure), not because of an econimic analysis of the costs and benefits or because it violates Part 1, Clause 4 of your personal code.

Likewise, I have a hard time believing that religious people truly get their principles from religion. People change religions all the time, and people choose their houses of worship based in large part on the way they were brought up. Clayton Cramer said somewhere above that when he could not reduce his code to an axiom or a series of axioms, he decided to become a Christian. But why a Christian and not a Buddhist, or a Scientologist, or a ZoroAstrian, ora Satan worshiper? There are a lot of differences between religions and he could have picked any one of them. I presume that Christianity was the one closest to the values he held and became self-reinforcing.

I don't know which of the principles I hold are from religion, which are from my parents (or their religious values -- one is essentially an athiest and one is not), which I picked up along the way through trial and error, etc. Ultimately though, I think the whole question is kind of a chicken and egg inquiry because I would not stay a part of a religion that I thought was immoral, and yet I am sure my values are influenced by the religion I follow.

Apologies for posting on the wrong thread, if I did.
12.1.2005 10:57pm
Dr. T (mail):
I agree to a great extent with the comments made by Elliot123. I disagree with commenters who believe that morality is innate. Numerous studies have indicated that persons raised without normal parental care usually become amoral sociopaths. I also disagree that morality arises from pure selfishness or self-interest. Many behaviors I consider immoral would appease those who act only out of self-interest.

My logic for moral behavior is self-referential but not focused on self-interest. The logic is that I wish to attain happiness, or at least contentment. I cannot be content if others assault, rob, swindle, mislead, harass, forcibly confine, silence, or enslave me. The logic of social interactions (as shown in the prisoners' dilemma and other game theories) indicates that I should not do any of those things to others.

My morality simplifies into the inverse of the golden rule: do not do unto others that which you do not wish done unto you. The golden rule is less important to my morality: I do not believe there is a moral requirement to actively do desirable things to others (such as praise them), although following the golden rule can help one attain happiness.
12.1.2005 11:20pm
Amongst other reasons, I'm nice to other people because I like them. I'm not normally nice to people I don't like, unless, of course, I have to be. We're social animals, though, and I like most people.

There are other reasons. I get angry when people are destructive toward things I care about. Thus, if I want to take myself seriously, I can't be destructive toward things others care about, at least without good cause. And I'd like to take myself seriously, wouldn't we all?

Morality can be misleading though. People should behave in their own interests, not others'. I really do believe in following the truth wherever it takes us -- not following a maxim whether it is right or wrong. So I think that fundamentally, people should follow rules that work. Rules that are rational, that achieve what we inherently want to achieve. Really, I think it's something that can be passionately appreciated by anyone that's ever had an idiot for a boss.

Rational behavior does have to be taught though. To an extent it has to be taught both emotionally and intellectually. People are often weak, and don't always behave even as they know they really should. To that extent, as an emotional idea, I think morality is important. Of course, this is somewhat clinical, but it seems that's what you wanted.

I also believe in beauty, though, and I think there is beauty in cooperation. Like someone else said, evil is ugly.
12.1.2005 11:23pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
As an irreligious fellow with temptations (grin) toward religion, I;ll post on both.

1. It is hard to take any philsophical position without positing some values that are ... religious or quite arbitrary. The greatest good for the greatest number? Why should the number matter? Why assume that all of them are equal? Why assume what is "good"? Besides, the very fact that utilitarians feel it necessary to reconcile their position with a higher standard (i.e., respond to the argument that if the motive for capital punishment is deterence, that would be served as well by killing some number of the innocent) indicates that it is not the real highest standard, but is being measured against some unarticulated standard).

2. One can easily posit a functional society in which homicide is a minor foible. The vikings. Or theft (at least from outsiders). Most Native American tribes, in which theft is a minor matter, and lying much more serious. Or oppression of minorities. Hmm... almost all human society except for modern Western ones, of the last few decades of human existance out of a million or two. The belief that there are universal human values is quite mistaken.

3. The real problem is reconciling a thoroughly irreligious approach with human equality. If all humans are not equal in the sense of having equal souls, then in what way are they equal? Strength? Intellect? Character? Is not treating the unequal as if it were equal an injustice?
12.1.2005 11:26pm
The short answer: I choose to do what I believe I should do.

The slightly longer answer: personally, I find the influence of my beliefs about what I should do on my actions to be inescapable (by "what I believe I should do" I don't just mean my conventionally moral beliefs, but rather any beliefs with normative content). It seems to be built into how I work: I have something I might call a "conscious will", and my will governs my actions, and what I believe I should do governs, at least in part, my will.

So, to me the question is not why my actions conform themselves, at least in part, to my beliefs about what I should do ... that part is inescapable because I have a conscious will. The question is why I have the beliefs that I do about what I should do.

I'm not sure there is a single good answer that covers all such beliefs (again, I am thinking of every belief with normative content). At best, I might suggest that what I believe I should do is derived from what I care about, in the sense that I tend to believe I should do what I believe would benefit that which I care about. I might call this connection between what I care about and what I believe I should do "rationality". And as it turns out, I care about myself, but I also care about a lot of other people, and other things as well.

Again, this all seems pretty inescapable to me. So, by my count, that is approximately three elements to my morality so far: having a conscious will, caring about certain things, and being rational. I know I need more elements (for example, how do I figure out what I believe would benefit the things I care about?), but I think that is a good start. And that, basically, is why I say I choose to do what I believe I should do.
12.1.2005 11:41pm
cw (mail):
I think about how I want to be treated and then try to treat people the same.
12.1.2005 11:45pm
MM (mail):
As statet above, it boils down to rational self-interest. I like being dealt with honestly and openly with coworkers, business partners, subordinates, bosses and even adversaries. I like being treated affectionately by friends and family, and I like being treated with civility and politeness by strangers. The best way to achieve that, through my experience is to treat others in the same way respectively.

Now, in situations where this these others don't abide by my preferences, there are variables to consider. Mainly, is this person a rational actor? Do I have the "capital" to fight this battle? What is the best-case/worst-case/most-likely outcome if I treat the other person with deference or ignore them or attack them (be it verbally, or physically or however)?

If this person is an irrational actor, then you have to fight to win. If a pedophile is stalking my daughter, then explaining the illogic of his actions accomplishes nothing, so I have to go on maximum offense. (The same would go with an addict looking to boost my things, a drunk at a bar, etc).

If the person IS rational, then you try to achieve the best outcome for me first, and the other(s) second.

Shorter me:

Of course I could kill anyone who ever did me wrong, and I could likely get away with it (aside from advertising it on a widely read blog), after all, there is no hell, no negative reincarnation. However, is it worth it to kill the guy who stole my eighth grade girlfriend, especially when I realize that I don't need or want everyone I've ever angered to try to extract blood vengeance from me, especially since I may not have meant to upset them or even known I upset them.

In short, I guess it boild down to the golden rule or paying it forward for you Kevin Spacey fans.
12.1.2005 11:46pm
Josh Jasper (mail):
From a Buddhist (non theist) viewpoint, morality is part of the only real path to enlightenment. You just can't get there without it.
12.1.2005 11:54pm
Generally I act morally from both a rational appraisal of the consequences and from a general love of my fellow man. People have gone into both of these pretty well, but two add two points:

1: If each time it appeared that I had the opportunity to murder another person for personal gain I did so, then sooner or later I would be wrong with disasterous consequences. Being nice might not always be the perfect solution, but I think that real drawback free opporunities to do evil for real longterm personal gain compared to things that seem like real drawback free opportunities to do evil for personal gain.

2: More than that, I think that if I didn't have a reflexive code of morality I couldn't conceal that fact from the people who matter to me. If I can help someone else at little cost to myself I'll take the opportunity without thinking about it, and hopefully sometimes people notice that I'm a nice person. More importantly if every time someone was somehow vulnerable to me I considered taking advantage of it I don't see how I could conceal it reliably, and after that I don't see how I could benifit from that person's trust in the future.
12.2.2005 12:56am
Max Kaehn (mail) (www):
I find that the only axiom necessary is "Other people are real." (The alternative-- solipsism-- is entirely too depressing.) Everything else can be derived from there through the principle of reciprocity.

Q the Enchanter, your "hopelessly" circular idea sounds a lot like a well-designed feedback system to me.
12.2.2005 1:03am
CKG (mail):

I happen to like the incidental consequences as well. Without the initiation of force there would be no murder, rape, kidnapping, mugging, etc.

There would, however, be no effective response to theft, fraud, trespass, slander, conspiracies against the public interest, etc.. Every civilization more complicated than a hunter-gatherer band ultimately relies on the application of violence to vindicate a system of property and personal rights.

For that matter, if I never resorted to the "initiation of force", how would I ever be able to discipline my children? My 4-year old would never sit in time out if I was unwilling to physically carry her there and restrain her.
12.2.2005 1:32am
I'm not sure that your question is all that applicable, personally. I act morally because that is how I was raised to act; had I been raised otherwise, I would act otherwise. In fact, everyone does this - as you point out, it all comes down to a non-logical axiom, or in other words something out of our control. People may justify their actions, but even that is itself a moral value - treating others as you wish to be treated implies some sort of equality; if I felt I could take your apple, but you would never be able to take mine, such an argument would be of little value. So one person might not steal the apple, but another might build an electric fence around their house; both would be steps to stop others from stealing your apple.

All that said, people by themselves are merely bunches of cells, we do not matter - it is our actions that do. In 100 years, we will all we dead. How we felt, if we were happy, etc. will be irrelevant - but what we accomplished will endure. If we raised children, they will continue our legacy. If we cured a disease, or invented a bomb, or any number of things - we will be remembered. Thus, we must do what is best for society; we ourselves are worth nothing, but by contributing to something greater we can make our lives worth having been lived.
12.2.2005 1:59am
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
It's worth noting a couple of points here: first, Buddhism quite specifically doesn't require an idea of a Diety as a ground for its view of morality; I found it sufficiently attractive to adopt Buddhism at least in part because of this. In fact, Buddhism depends on the observation by Gautama that there was an axiom from which he derived his system, and this axiom was one he arrived at by observation and thought. (This axiom is usually stated in the context of the Four Noble Truths: life is characterized by frustration (dukkha), dukkha arises from attachment to transitory things, dukkha can be cured by ceasing to be attached to transitory things, and that there are skillful means through which the cessation of attachment can be achieved.)

Second, though, the logical standing of the whole question is a little suspect, since no system of reasoning can proceed with the existence of certain axioms: the very statement that there is such a thing as one thing following logically from another is dependent on the (axiomatic) agreement on certain rules of discourse. So the question "Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can't logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle? Or do you think that you can indeed logically support your choice of axiom, without calling on some other axioms that you can't logically support — and, if so, how?" is inherently vacuous, self-denying: you cannot "logically support" axioms, by definition.
12.2.2005 2:38am
Bottomfish (mail):
In one way or another, the greater part of what has been posted violates the rules of the game that our moderator has set up. Many posters present justifications in terms of rational self-interest or overall total social utility, helping out their theorizing by by our present fragmentary knowledge of how the human species has evolved. I would not say that they are wrong, but the question arises why these considerations ar so important. That is, if I look at myself, I ask why, if I am self-interested, should I care about social utility? If I am really rational, then why am I enslaved to my biological responses?

The point is not to explain the ethical attitudes of the human species, but to consider strictly oneself and how one would exist in a world where others do not agree with one's own ethical values. The answer I think is that one's personality, for a while anyway, would disintegrate. Ethical values constitute a kind of glue that holds the psyche together, and knowing this, subconsciously, we have a very good reason to hang on to them. The best empirical justification for this explanation lies in the fact that when we are immersed in a milieu where other people's values are radically different from our own, we experience considerable psychological disorientation. After a while, though, we re-orient ourselves. To put it neutrally, our values have changed. From a negative perspective, we have become demoralized and cynical. From a positive one we can consider ourselves "liberated." But a lot of people are able to survive with very little in the way of values; they are called "psychopaths."
12.2.2005 5:02am
Wild Pegasus (mail) (www):
Here's the question: Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?

The two foundational principles seem to be:

1. Hands to yourself.
2. Treat others like you want to be treated.

The first probably comes from the idea that human life is sacred, for lack of a better word. If not sacred, then at least unusual, extraordinary, and special. As such, individuals get a broad area in which to explore their specialness. Ergo, hands off.

The second is mostly self-interest. I want to enjoy certain treatment, so I show it to others. In addition, being unusually polite in social situations seems to brighten others' day, and that brings me a small measure of satisfaction.

- Josh
12.2.2005 6:23am
The Mike Porter (mail):
Basic axioms from an atheistic perspective:

Be the best that you can be. You only go around once in life, why waste it?

Try to live the good life. Of course, what the good live is is one of life's greatest questions.

Treat others with the respect they deserve. You can't live this life without interacting with your fellow human beings. The division of labor pays huge dividends. If we behave badly to others, life will be miserable for all.

Try to be a productive human being. If we weren't productive, we would still be hunter-gathers living in caves, barely surviving, and certainly not living the good life.

Never, ever, reject your rational faculty. Your rational faculty is what separates man from other animals and what makes human progress possible.

Ethics, which includes morality, is a branch of philosophy. Western civilization has a history of rational philosophy going back to perhaps the greatest of all men, Aristotle. A good philosophy will study the nature of man and offer answers to how man can live a good life, including what makes a good life. Religion takes it upon itself to offer answers to the basic branches of philosophy, which include metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Religion does not have a monolopy on morality, it just offers its own particular answers, be they good, bad, or indifferent.

Mike Porter
12.2.2005 8:24am
I'm not actually completely irreligious but I am secular, and I believe that there's little if any correlation between religious belief and morality.

I've been thinking about this exact question lately, in thinking about where the First Principles of the human rights movement—the true successors to the founder's belief in natural law as far as I'm concerned—and here's my answer:

self-interest + an ability to perceive and understand that others are human beings just like you + a demand for logical consistency.

We have a biologically driven, close-to-universal desire to survive, be survived by our children, avoid pain. "There is not a man under the canopy of heaven", as Frederick Douglass wrote, "who does not know that slavery is wrong for him." The same is true of torture, genocide, murder, rape, and more mundane crimes like fraud, theft, deception. We know it as much as we know anything.

We have the senses to perceive and the reasoning to understand that other human beings experience these things just as we do. And if it is wrong for them to do it to us, it must be wrong for us to do it to them.

One last thing: it's interesting that you don't think the moral views of religious people need explaining. "God says so" is actually not much help. A, it's divine command theory, and there are all sorts of problems with that. B, how do you know God actually says so? People have claimed that God said a lot of things. If people are fallible about everything else why aren't they fallible about this?
12.2.2005 8:39am
Adam (mail):
I act according to certain moral axioms because they appeal to my sense of moral intuition. See here,for a long explanation. In general, the moral axioms I act on, as opposed to the ones I might like to philosophize about, are much less abstract than the ones Professor Volokh suggests.
12.2.2005 9:05am
Neal R. (mail):
I'm glad to see some attention being given to Volokh's assumption that morality must built up from certain irreducible "moral axioms." That's certainly a contestable claim, and it may be a dangerous one as well.

For example, Volokh once characterized his belief that torture is an appropriate punishment for sufficiently heinous crimes as a "moral axiom." That's a moral belief, to be sure, but it strikes me as a perfect example of the kind of moral claim that can and should be put to logical argumentation. If we give up too quickly on reason and resort to assertions of commandments or other "moral axioms," we forfeit the opportunity to persuade one another about what's right. Volokh thinks torture may be okay; I disagree. But there's little point in our debating the issue since we have simply adopted different foundational beliefs which aren't suscpetible of logical proof. This leads us to a sort of second-tier moral relativism. It's not relativistic in the sense that it denies that there is a right answer to the question. But it's relativistic in that it denies that there is any way to establish what the answer is.

I agree with those commmentors who believe that some form of the "Golden Rule," or the Kantian categorical imperative, is both necessary and sufficient to order our moral beliefs. One could view this is an "axiom," but Kant certainly didn't. He thought it was a principle of reason that could be reached through logical deduction.

I also agree, however, with the commentor who said that most, if not all, of the analyses offered in this thread are compatible with one another. I don't want to give up on morality as a rational inquiry and would describe myself as Neo-Kantian. But I also certainly agree that morality is a human construct, that it may be biologically determined, that moral codes can be understood as utilitarian heuristics for welfare maximization, and so on. Morality is a big concept that can be usefully framed in a number of different ways.
12.2.2005 10:07am
Henry Woodbury (mail):
If I didn't continually attempt to be honest, kind, and dependable I would become filled with self-loathing and become depressed and irritable. It's my parents fault. Despite being irreligious I have to admit that my parents were and are devoutly religious. However, I feel fairly confident that I can give my irreligious children similar hangups.

Which I do want to do, because I have to live with them for the rest of my life.

So, on a cultural level, I see virtue as a kind of self-correcting system. We want others to be virtuous so we support psychological pressures that feed back into our own value systems.

Of course, at any given moment, a little theft or betrayal may benefit me, but becoming a thief or liar is, objectively, a bad way to go. So, on a personal level, getting beyond the guilt thing, it's enlightened self interest to be virtuous. Who wants to end up like Willy Loman?
12.2.2005 10:20am
I thought of two things to add.

1. Although many here aren't advertising the optimism of their views, I think it's important to point out. It seems most of us here believe that we've been placed in a world where there is synergy in people being nice to eachother. In a way, that's pretty cool. One could imagine a world where the opposite were true, and we were constantly forced to snipe at eachother. I'm not sure either scenario has been proved entirely, but most of us seem to believe our situation is more like the former.

There's a lot of optimism in that. Actually, secularists may be significantly more optimistic in that respect that religionists, many of whom seem to believe that without a father figure and after-life rewards, we'd all tear eachother apart.

2. Also, although many religionsists think our utilitarian explanations miss out on the crux of morality (whatever they think that crux to be), the truth is that almost everybody agrees with us. Hardly anybody thinks we would ultimately have a duty to destroy ourselves for morality. Hardly anyone is willing to say of an action, "Sure, I know it's worse for more people, but I think we should do it anyway!"

So basically, I don't think there is a major difference in moral sense between religionists and secularists. To be blunt, I think religious morality is just a less rational permutation. Secular morality, as described here, has gotten much more to the heart of the matter.

Since people aren't allowed to attack us, I'm hoping preemptive defenses are ok...
12.2.2005 10:48am
sbw (mail) (www):
Readers, Eugene asks, "But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?"

I'd be pleased if readers, looking back on what I wrote above [sbw: link and some small stuff later on], would help me understand if, in fact what I wrote implies an axiom that cannot be demonstrated. I ask because I'm not sure that Eugene's premise necessarily holds. [I mean besides the premise one actually can logically deduce something from experience in the first place.]
12.2.2005 11:07am
CharleyCarp (mail):
Sorry if this is duplicative, but to the non-believer, it's clear enough that what the believers say God has decreed is the same as what we believe without God. That is, you have a set of values and, as an enforcement mechanism, someone came up with the idea of saying that the rules weren't his idea, but were the idea of someone in the sky who has the awesome power to punish violators. Either here in front of us all, or later in a secret prison somewhere.

That is, the moral precepts all derive from the same place: enlightened self-interest.
12.2.2005 11:30am
I believe there is a problem with the question -- and it leads to the religious and irreligious talking past each other.

In a sense, I think the question (as posed) is actually *unfair* to the irreligious individual... or may be taken unfairly by the religous types who read these answers.

The irreligious individual -- as many have eloquently done above -- answers by showing how "morality" is *useful*, or *socially beneficial*, or *psychologically rewarding*, or what have you.

All well and good.

And I expect the religious individual would believe with a lot of it.

Because, you see, the religious believer approaches such a question with the 'deeper' concern "is morality *true*".

I.e. is it rooted in the very nature of existence (or, indeed, rooted in the nature of the Creator of existence) or is it a mere epiphenomenon of electromagnitism in the brain, or blind evolution, or social Darwinism, or what have you.

Now, the irrelgious individual will reply, perhaps rightly by his lights, "but that's not what we're talking about." And he'll say that because, for him, there *is* no trans-existential measure of capital-T Truth. There is ultimately only explanations of utility, or scientific descriptions of a phenomenon, etc.

In other words, the irreligious person says "I can justify the utility or evolution of a moral sense on physical or psychological grounds and don't need to invoke a God" and the religious person says (rightly I think) "fair enough, but that doesn't *disprove* the existence of God in any way either".

Indeed, the religious person might well go on to bewail the fact that the irreligious answer risks stripping any "objective" content out of morality at all, making it a random epiphenomenon of no more intrinsic "truth" than the color of one's hair of the current hight of hem lines.

To which, naturally, the irreligious replies that there *is* no such thing as "intrinsic truth" in the religious sense, as there is no God to create/define/ground such "Truth".

And so on and so forth.

That's what I mean about "talking past" each other.

- LP
12.2.2005 12:19pm
Brad Patrick (mail):

This is the NPR "This I believe" commentary from Penn Gillette, famous magician, libertine, and athiest (not agnostic), which spells out the baseline - by believing there is no God, he sheds any pretense for his actions based on the future hope of salvation, etc.

According to Jillette, "Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around." Penn concludes, "Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have."
12.2.2005 12:30pm
Michael Lopez (mail):
If I were a college basketball coach and I had a player who was great on offense, and another who was great on defense, I would play the first player forward and the second player back.

Makes sense, right?

OK, so now we get to the heart of the matter of why I, an unreligious person, think that the religious people have it *right* when it comes to morality.

I'm fairly certain that the world's major religions have it wrong in the absolute sense, but I'm just as sure that they are asymptotically approaching something that might even be the truth of morality. ANd when it comes right down to it, I think it's an empirical fact that the world works better when religious people are in charge of the right-and-wrong portion of the human race's game plan.

So my general moral axiom, if I can be said to have one, is "listen to what the religious people say that God says" and go with it. I *like* religious people... I just hope that they don't burn me at the stake.

But that's why I play the ACLU on defense. :)

-Michael Lopez
12.2.2005 1:32pm
dweeb (mail):
OK, I'm not in the category, but I asked this same question of a friend who IS. His answer was that the religiously inspired morality system had done a pretty good job so far, and he was raised in it and comfortable with it, so he was willing to bet that adhering to it was likely to best serve the greatest amount of his self interests in the long run. He couldn't forsee all the consequences throughout his life of every decision, so he opted to benefit from the collective experience of mankind.

As he put it: "Let's face it, all our principles of human rights, etc. stem from the beliefs of our forefathers. Principles of liberty, fairness, etc. are tied to Judaeo/Christian beliefs - slavery isn't such a problem if you believe life as a slave is just one brief stop on the reincarnation merry go round. So, since this moral system has produced a society I find fair and comfortable, following it has the greatest probability of my long term well being."
12.2.2005 2:02pm
CKG (mail):

I agree with those commmentors who believe that some form of the "Golden Rule," or the Kantian categorical imperative, is both necessary and sufficient to order our moral beliefs.

And this is precisely the belief, frequently presented in these comments, that I find so annoying. Its OBVIOUSLY not "sufficient" to refer to the Golden Rule, whether it is presented via Kant's formulation, the biblical version, or anyone elses.

And just a cursory examination of the moral questions and debates that animate current events and fill newspaper editorials proves it. Is it moral to starve a brain-damaged woman to death when her husband claims thats what she would have wanted, and her parents claim she would never agree to such a thing? Is abortion immoral? Is eating meat immoral? Is the death penalty immoral? Is clear cutting a forest to provide lumber for homes immoral?

In a certain sense, the Golden Rule is trivial. It fails, pretty miserably, to provide sufficiency for a number of reasons. Some of them are purely philosophical, but some of them are practical and serious.

For example, the "other" to whom we owe a duty of reciprocity is undefined. Does this other include a foreigner? A fetus? A cow? An incoherent stranger on ones front porch at 200AM? Another species? An ecosystem? A foreign culture?

Nor does the Golden Rule provide any real guidance in the face of highly imperfect information, about either the circumstances we find ourselves in or the consequences of our decisions. And imperfect information is the normal circumstance, not the exception. Does the death penalty deter crime or not? Does Iraq have WMDs or not? Will torturing this particular terroist save innocent lives? Torturing any given suspect of terrorism? Would Terry Schiavo have wanted to live or not? A _practical_ system of ethics must tell one what should be done, even when answers to the questions posed above are not only uncertain, but unknowable.

But an even larger problem is that the argument that the Golden Rule is 'sufficient' presupposes that moral and ethical dilemmas consist of choosing how ones self should treat a specified "other". But only the most trivial moral questions consist of such choices. And almost every culture arrives at the same answer to those questions. No culture will fail to condemn a man who kills other members of the tribe for his own sadistic pleasure.

In real life, human beings are highly social animals. Almost all of us go through are lives maintaining numerous different types of relationships with an even larger number of people, institutions, communities, ideals and even animals. And these relationships, in part, consist of serious moral duties. Worse, these social "objects" we interact with have webs of interlocking duties with one another.

Virtually all _serious_ ethical problems involve situations where one or more individuals possess conflicting duties to different parties, or even to different characterizations or aspects of the same party. And the actions we take for or against another then ripple through the web of relationships centered around the person or thing acted on, potentially forcing a new round of moral and ethical consequences on potentially a great many others. To what extent are we obligated to consider those secondary &tertiary effects?

Is it moral to oppose the constuction of a Megalo-Mart in my small town, because it will drive out local small businesses and change the character of my community? Or is it immoral, because the jobs and low prices Megalo-Mart brings will greatly benefit the poor? Do I donate $5000 to charity, where it will save dozens of children I've never met from starvation? Or do I put it in my daughter's college fund, because I owe her an education? If I am the bombadier on a warplane, is it moral for me to refuse to drop incendiary devices in a crowded city because my refusal will spare innocent, noncombatant women and children a painful and gruesome death? or is it immoral, because my refusal will greatly endanger my fellow soldiers, destroy my reputation, shame my parents, humiliate my spouse and impoverish my children?

If I'm an admissions officer at an elite school, and have one more opening in the next class that I can assign, do I give it to the applicant with the best grades and test scores, because, after all, they have earned it? to the African-American applicant because the university refused to admit either of her parents, solely because of their race? to the Korean-American applicant because I know, for a fact, that my institution currently posesses a policy, which I personally abhor, of discriminating against Asians? to the veteran who lost his foot to an IDE? to my nephew Fred, whose father helped me get my current job in the expectation I'd do him some favors later? To the indolent child of a very wealthy alumnus, who makes it clear a large donation hinges on his child's admission?
12.2.2005 2:14pm
murky (mail) (www):
I think you must be oversimplifying belief in characterizing it as logic on top of an axiom. I try to be logical, but I'm sure not always. I believe that things are right and things are wrong because I believe a lot of what people and organisations tell me, and especially a lot of what people and organisations told me when I was growing up. I also believe in induction. Our social system has kept me safe and warm and fed and I expect it to continue to do so. I feel sorry for the poor and downtrodden and I've even met a few, but I believe certain politicians and economists and historians when they say we're probably doing about the best we can. I see successful people in this system act a certain way and so I act that way too. I want to be admired. I also have instinctive or emotional reactions to things as wrong, and I'm inclined to indulge those reactions, all things equal. Note that some people tell me that other people are liars or mistaken and this must be true or else I can't make sense of the world around me. When people tell me opposite things, I go with the person who strikes me as most credible at the moment; strongly influenced by how credible they've struck me in the past, the good I think has come from believing them and the emotionally-felt cost of not believing them.
12.2.2005 3:01pm
Law Student Kate (mail):
LP said:

Indeed, the religious person might well go on to bewail the fact that the irreligious answer risks stripping any "objective" content out of morality at all, making it a random epiphenomenon of no more intrinsic "truth" than the color of one's hair of the current hight of hem lines.

This struck me for two reasons.

First, because there is an objective, inviolable truth to this question: the TRUTH is that human morality does not exist independent of humans. It is not intrinsic to the universe, it is only intrinsic to our brains.

Second, your example of hair color provided me with a proper analogy. In objective truth, no one has a hair color. There is no such thing as color. Color is a human construct, a trick played on us by the rods and cones in our eyes and the cortex of our brains. But even though it's an illusion, it doesn't matter! Color is as real and compelling to us as anything else. Absent a defect of the eye or brain, we have no choice but to experience and react to color.

The same applies to morality. It doesn't exist outside of the human mind, but that doesn't mean that it is any less compelling or important than if it did. Absent a defect such as sociopathology, none of us can escape the biological fact of empathy, and from empathy, the golden rule flows.

So: humans are biologically built to understand the golden rule. The interesting part then comes when we use our capacity for abstract and rational thought to come up with the million different permutations of how it's applied. For instance, who counts as "others"? For me, that includes any sentient being capable of suffering, so I count animals. Others don't. Some count animals they like (cats and dogs), but not animals they don't (slugs and spiders). Some don't count other humans because they look or act different.

There are numerous ways of applying the rule to real-life factual scenarios, but the rule itself is a biological fact that exists without need for an axiom.
12.2.2005 3:26pm
David Gross (www):
I hit pretty much this very same Q&A on my blog last year. Excerpts from my answer:

I realized that I was making ethical evaluations all the time, as much as I might pretend to believe that no such things were possible, and that these ethical evaluations were as real parts of my experience as, say, color. I couldn't run away from them without going through grotesque internal distortions of reality (like trying to pretend that I didn't see "blue" because I couldn't find a rational foundation for color).

So I decided to bite the bullet and try to accept ethics rather than try to rationalize it away. So my "center" is an ethical "sixth sense" where I look at some situation and intuitively know "that'd be wrong" and steer away from it. Perhaps that means that ethics reduces to aesthetics after all.

Reason is a participant in my ethical evaluations, and in my evaluation of my ethics, but I don't expect it to take the lead, and I don't expect ethics to be derived from reason. There may be no reason to serve God and not the Devil at any particular moment. A lot of religion seems to be an attempt to invent reasons — God's commandments, or divine judgement with punishment in the afterlife, for instance. But I'm kind of fond of imagining the existentialist atheist saying — ha! there's no God, and no reason to serve God and not the Devil, but I'm going to serve God anyway! Wheeee!

It's a performance I'm putting on for myself. Or a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book writ large.

Nothing matters, ultimately, except to the extent that we decide that it matters. No God will fill out a performance evaluation for me. I won't be reincarnated as a prince or a lamprey. Our suffering and triumph means nothing in the greater scheme of things. Cruel and evil people prosper and then die old and satisfied in their sleep while innocent children have their arms ripped off by bombs and die of dysentery. Neither get redemptions from a heavenly accountant — from the perspective of eternity, their books are already balanced and their accounts are of no account. My bones will crumble to dust in no time at all, and my name will be forgotten as quickly. And I am going to try to be a good person anyway because that's what I want to do with my life.

12.2.2005 3:43pm
Gary McGath (www):
There are so many answers posted already that I can't read through them all, so I may be repeating what someone else has said.

Here I follow a slightly modified form of Rand's argument. Basic moral principles (I don't call them "axioms," since I reserve that term for something which is immediately self-evident) are a systematization of choices which are implicit in choosing to live as a human being (as opposed to lying down and dying, or running amuck at random). I choose to live. To sustain this choice, I must seek out and maintain values which are consistent with the decision and enable me to carry it out. These include physically sustaining my life and examining it (in the Socratic sense). Examining my life and living accordingly implies deciding what kind of world I would like to live in, and acting to create that kind of world as much as possible within my personal context.
12.2.2005 3:49pm
Kate wrote:

LP said:

Indeed, the religious person might well go on to bewail the fact that the irreligious answer risks stripping any "objective" content out of morality at all, making it a random epiphenomenon of no more intrinsic "truth" than the color of one's hair of the current hight of hem lines.

This struck me for two reasons.

First, because there is an objective, inviolable truth to this question: the TRUTH is that human morality does not exist independent of humans. It is not intrinsic to the universe, it is only intrinsic to our brains.

Second, your example of hair color provided me with a proper analogy. In objective truth, no one has a hair color. There is no such thing as color. Color is a human construct, a trick played on us by the rods and cones in our eyes and the cortex of our brains. But even though it's an illusion, it doesn't matter!

Oddly, we're probably in agreement... at least in how we understand your position.

You reject the "TRUTH" of the religious thinker, saying there is No Such Thing as objective truth or objective color etc. (We're wandering off into the problem of universals here.)

Morality may be as "objective" as a human thing *can* be (depending on how you define things in the irreligious scheme), but it's not the religious thinker's mythical "Truth" because there isn't such a thing.

The religous thinker, in reply, says "ah, but there *is* a deeper truth, one you're rejecting."

Which neatly demonstrates exactly the "talking past" this sort of question so often generates.

However, I believe the irreligious position, at least as you outlined it, has a grave logical weakness.

You say "the TRUTH is that human morality does not exist independent of humans."

But how do you *measure* or *validate* that "truth"?

To use your own definitions, that statement of "TRUTH" on your part is merely an expression of your own opinion, affected by your genetics, your society, and probably what you had for dinner last night.

It is in itself, therefore, no more "objective" or "true" than *my* expression of my own opinion (genetics/society/pscychology/gastronomy) which might be that there *is* a deeper "Truth."

And at this level, we have nothing but competing opinions / world views / social constructs / etc.

So, how do we resolve the disagreement? In your system, where there is no "objective Truth" save the constructs of the human mind, WE CAN'T.

The best we can do is observe that we have is competing claims with nothing more "fundamental" to which to appeal... we're reduced to the "no it isn't" / "yes it is" exchanges which are the inevitable result of incompatible postulates.

AND YET: you write, "the TRUTH is..." as if there *is* something more fundamental to which you can appeal, something which can "objectively" resolve this disagreements between opinions. Some "TRUTH" by which you can claim that *your* opinion is correct and the religious opinion is wrong.

In other words, kicking God out the front door, you sneak Him in the back door (under some other name) so that you can appeal to some sort of fundamental "TRUTH" by which the religious thinker is wrong.

To be logically consistent, I believe, those who reject any sort of diety in which to ground reality beyond mere perception (and even mere perception gets problematic when you think of it), can't claim that those who disagree are absolutely "wrong"... simply that they disagree.

Or, at least, they have a *very* hard time trying to make the case "I'm right that there is no God and you're wrong" beyond the simple observation "our assumptions (or culture or background or dinners) disagree". I think it *can* be done, or at least a noble attempt made in that direction...

... but it would have to be substantially more sophisticated than something which boils down to "The TRUTH is that there is *no* TRUTH".
12.2.2005 4:21pm
Neal R. (mail):

I said the categorical imperative is necessary and sufficient for ordering our moral beliefs, not that it provides a simple, automatic answer for every particular moral question. I certainly agree that there are many very difficult moral questions, and that the application of moral precepts to particular facts and circumstances is half the battle. That's true no matter what moral beliefs you hold or where they come from.

I'd be interested to hear how you would answer Volokh's questions. Are you posting on the right thread?
12.2.2005 4:34pm
Law Student Kate (mail):
LP - You are correct that no atheist can rationally state that it is 100% impossible that God exists. It is only rational to say that it is very very unlikely, which is in fact the majority atheist position (although this is commonly misunderstood).

But as to the existence of objective truth, I may not have been clear. I absolutely believe in objective truth. I believe it is objectively true that I exist, that my cat exists, that you exist, that the computer that I'm typing on exists, etc. I believe it is objectively true that lightwaves bounce off objects in ways that interact with human eyeballs, which then send messages to human brains, which give humans the experience of color. I don't believe there is an objective thing, "color", that exists independent of animals' brains. And, likewise, I don't think that there is an objective moral code that exists independent of human brains. But I do think those brains exist!

How do I measure that? I just weigh the evidence for and against, just like everything else. And to me, it isn't even close. The possibility of a God, while it is possibile, is so small and insignificant that I don't even bother with it. Likewise, there's a sense in which it's *possible* that gnomes exist - I can't absolutely prove otherwise. But it's so unlikely that I don't spend any time worrying about it. I don't mean to denigrate the God myth by comparing it to other supernatural myths like gnomes, but to me, it really is exactly the same analysis, and I don't find one to be more likely than the other.

For the religious, when they weigh the evidence for and against, it apparently seems like a close case. I can't imagine why, but I guess it comes down to the same genetics/culture/circumstances you mentioned.

Anyhow, I think I'm violating the rules of this thread by arguing about the atheist perspective - sorry about that.
12.2.2005 4:47pm
George Talbot (mail):
I've thought a lot about this lately. I work in the biomedical field and the thing that I've learned the most from this is that life is a pattern of immense and complex beauty, from the proteins and molecules that interact and drive every process of the cells of all living creatures to the beauty and complexity of those cells, to the beauty and complexity of creatures composed of those cells, to the beauty and complexity of the collection of creatures and their surrounding environments.

I think that any morality, religious or not, has at its base a reverence for all Life, and this can be stated in both religious and non-religious terms. In religious terms, this might be stated as reverence for all of God's Creation. In non-religious terms, it might be stated as a reverence for the world and universe we live in and a desire for the complexity and beauty of both individual life and Life in general to continue and grow.

Such a reverence can have both altruistic and selfish components. Morality lies at the intersection of these components, and I believe that the root of human morality is in finding the balance between altruistic and selfish desire that leads to growth in the complexity and beauty of both the life of the individual and the collective Life of all things.

As such, whether one's moral system is couched in religious terms or secular, for human beings, there is a logical root to any such system. For me personally, I try to see how my actions lead to the growth of complexity and beauty of both my life and all Life. I don't always suceed. Let me take your questions one at a time in this context:

Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?

See above.

We should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of humans;

A good start. Not enough. A care for "the environment" doesn't come out of nowhere; at root, I believe is the reverence I speak of above, and I have also seen this reverence expressed in religious terms as "Creation Care".

the greatest good for the greatest number of my fellow citizens of a certain country;

To a point, but, as we've seen from history (and I'm thinking of the canonical 20th century moral example of WWII), individual national lebensraum isn't always morally defensible. The situations where it's not tie into reverence for all Life.

the greatest good for me and my family;

Again to a point, does, say, systematically defrauding others to support one's family really lead to a better life in the long run? Does it improve all Life?

the greatest good for me;

There's a balance point between the needs of all Life and the needs of an individual living thing, with the needs of all Life being paramount.

the greatest good for all sentient species on the Earth; the greatest good for humanity in all future generations.

I think this approaches what I'm saying. I would also say that humans don't live in a vacuum.

We should not initiate force or fraud against others; we should not engage in force or fraud against others even if they initiate it; we should not initiate force but we may initiate fraud; "others" should only include humans; "others" should include all animals that can feel pain; "others" should include all animals that have more than some threshold of intelligence. We should do only those things that we would be willing to have all others do; some of us should do whatever we want to do, because we're superior to others; we should do those things that are best for us, since others are going to do the same in any event.

As living things, our morality must find the balance in both "local" and "global" actions that allows Life to continue, and allows it to grow in complexity and beauty.

Now if you believed that there was a God who created the world, who was concerned with human affairs, who in some measure controlled access to a happy afterlife, and who made his will known by delivering a book that chronicled both his prescriptions and a list of miracles that he himself had performed, you might choose as an axiom "Do what God tells me to do." This itself wouldn't be an open and shut argument; but I think that, if the factual assertions behind it were accurate, it would have substantial plausibility.

But you don't believe this. Why then do you order your life around some particular moral axiom that you can't logically support, especially when disregarding this axiom could save you a lot of hassle? Or do you think that you can indeed logically support your choice of axiom, without calling on some other axioms that you can't logically support — and, if so, how?

Hassle or not doesn't factor into morality, and the roots of morality for living things as I've stated above are not really mutually exclusive from teachings in most books of presumedly Divine authorship. Do you really believe that religious morality is rooted in "I had better do what God told me to or I won't get into Heaven"? Or "look at all these miracles--I had better do what God tells me to, because I can't explain them"?

If that's what you think, and I were God, I'd kick you out of Heaven on general principles. Morality and religion get tied together for one simple reason. Reverence. "Religious" and "irreligious" may couch morality in different terms, but all morality whether religious or irreligious is (to cast this in a religious way) rooted in a reverence for Life and all of God's creation. Whether you believe in a God (or Gods) or not, at root human morality by our nature of being alive, must be rooted in such reverence for Life and the world in which life is lived.
12.2.2005 5:15pm
sbw (mail) (www):
First, the Golden Rule is most effective expressed as Confucius phrased it -- in the negative -- Don't do to someone else what you don't want done to you.

Second, visualize this if you will. The mathematics of quantum mechanics suggests particles at particular points arise from "fields" spread over space and time. In fashioning a moral framework, it's as if each person represents one cell -- one field -- in the universe of fields representing everyone. Depending how a cell chooses to respond, it can manufacture a relationship with other cells through simple communication about experience.

At this lowest level of the relationship, there is no morality, just communication. Interelationship allow a protective umbrella of society to be formulated. People choose by their actions to live under the umbrella, or not.

Morality is a higher-level force that is manufactured from the feedback each cell gets from its own experience and communication with others. [Don't you dare joke, "The force be with you"!] Religion only mistakenly enters into the issue because people jump to the conclusion that it is successful as the moral umbrella. Unfortunately, it isn't one umbrella, it is many, and doesn't always enjoy effective communication with other cells.

Pardon the stretch into physics, but it helps point out that out of uniformity can come force that has consequence. It's also worth remembering that not everyone chooses to live under a moral umbrella that works for you.
12.2.2005 5:21pm
CKG (mail):
Why do I organize my life around certain moral principles?

Ultimately, for the same reason my cat likes to chase a dangling string. He likes chasing string because his ancestors survived by chasing and catching small prey to survive for eons, so seeing a string dangle and hearing it rustle triggers a reaction in his nervous system that makes him WANT to catch the thing...over and over again.

For our human ancestors, one of the most important factors in an individual's ability to survive and reproduce was understanding the expectations of the community and conforming ones conduct accordingly to avoid social exclusion. Violating the prevailing mores and taboos will result in a loss of status at a minimum, and death at worse. So human brains evolved in such a way that a normal human cannot help but pay very close attention to the prevailing mores and taboos, and to chew over the factors that are used by various members of the community to justify them, whether those factors are abstract morality, legal principles, religious writings or mindless tradition and superstition.

The mechanism evolution ultimately provided was to somehow link thoughts about taboos, mores and the justifications of these social constructs to several powerful emotions - disgust, anger, pride and happiness. I feel disgust with myself when violating my moral judgement, anger when witnessing others engage in immmoral conduct, pride when making sacrifices to uphold my moral judgements, and happiness when observing others behave fairly.

I worry about morality because, biologically, I am as compelled to do so as my cat is to chase string. I experience emotional pain when disregarding morality, emotional pleasure when observing it. This process, as actually experienced, has little to do with logic.

Where did the particular moral principles around which I organize my life originate?

Almost exactly the same place my ability to communicate in English came from. As an infant, I learned the basics of a moral sense from observation of my family members and their close friends, trial and error efforts of my own, reinforced by various rewards and discouragements offered by the adults charged with raising me. As I got older, I adopted more complex understandings based on a combination of formal instruction, private reading, and experience obtained from interacting with an ever larger circle of human beings as I matured.

And in most people, this moral sense remains fairly flexible, and is highly susceptible to the perceived judgements of others. For the most part, if a person witnesses others engaging in behavior he normally considers wrong, or even reprehensible, without being condemned, he is far more willing to engage in the same behavior himself. Sexual and social mores relax in a party atmosphere, even among those who remain sober. Gentle, harmless men who would never harm anyone under normal circumstances become a vicous killers when drafted and placed on a battlefield.

Why am I willing to accept a "moral sense" built around emotional responses rather than logic?

As a middle aged man, who studied philosophy and logic in college, who attended law school and passed the bar exam, and who practiced law for a few years, I can certainly sit down and construct a logical, reasoned argument in support of a particular moral position. But I accept that such arguments, when made in most particular cases of moral judegment that excite public emotion, i.e. the tough cases, are smokesceens and distractions. Logical arguments are rhetorical weapons drafted in the service of causes and enterprises driven overwhelmingly atavistic emotional responses.

This is not to say that appeals to logic are not powerful. They are extremely powerful. But the actual human scope of such an appeal tends to be limited to those who already agree on an emotional level, to some extent, with the moral judgement the maker wishes his audience adopt.

And at this point,logic and reason can become counterproductive to producing "moral behavior" as most people would recognize it. After all, its possible to start with a few very reasonable axioms, and use logic to arrive at moral conclusions most of us would reject out of hand. For example, most people worldwide would probably agree with both of the following statements: "Sacrificing oneself for the benefit of ones community is admirable" and "Using force, even deadly force, against one who intends to kill members of my community is permissible." But a virtually unassailable chain of logic leads from those two statements to the real-life decision of a Tamil schoolgirl to strap dynamite to her chest and kill the Prime Minister of India in a dramatic suicide bombing.
12.2.2005 8:40pm
Gabriel Mihalache (mail) (www):
Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing.

I don't think so. I haven't met people whose minds were structured as you propose. This might be a naive belief of ligicians but the way people come to think what they think and feel what they feel is very much different.

Regarding myself, my attitude is that morality must be rejected much in the same way metaphysics took a beating in the 20th century. No morality, no metaphysics, no ontology... they are useless and potentially harmful methods.

I agree with much of Wittgenstein's work (He was religious, in a personal way. I'm not.) regarding the nature of belief, the nature of certainty, the nature of religious and mystical emotions, etc.

I think we must take the bloody hard road and not hide behind axioms and made-up creatures in the sky. There is no inherent restriction on the behavior of man, and there can be no universal restriction as such. We can assume that by talking alone we can create consensus or at least pace, but that's just an assumption.
12.3.2005 6:06am
John Widgett Robinson (mail) (www):
Wow, the comments thus far are a lot of what Brother Dave would call "hard sayins". It seems like this has been approached six ways from Sunday (no pun intended) already, and I feel bad bringing something this simplistic to the table, but here goes...

I grew up at first with no religion. Then my parents decided we needed some and I became a Christian for a while. But I gave that up some time ago.

In all honesty, I'm not sure where my morality comes from. I'm sure a great deal of it came from my upbringing, seeing as how I started off godless and then became...godful, I guess, and then went back to godless...but my morality didn't change in the least. In the middle portion, of course, I avoided idolatry. Or something. But beyond that, no change.

I agree with some others who have posted here that I find it easier to operate in a world where I don't do wrong things. For example, anytime I feel like doing something potentially stupid while driving--cutting someone off just to make an almost missed turn, let's say--I consider how aggravating it is to have to react to somebody doing something stupid and I think, 'Well, the person who just did that...maybe they're good most of the time too, but I just happened to be behind them when they thought, "Oh, this time doesn't matter..."' So that leads me to believe that every time matters. And I should act accordingly.

I also agree that there's something innate in me that feels good about doing good things (or at least not doing bad things). And I feel better about myself when I'm not doing things I consider to be bad or wrong. Is this because of my parents, or something hardwired by evolution? Bit of both? No idea. Last time I gazed that deep into my navel something bit me on the nose.

So it's purely selfish with me. I do good because it feels like the right thing to do and because I hope that you will do the same in return.
12.3.2005 7:11am
sbw (mail) (www):
> I also agree that there's something innate in me that feels good about doing good things (or at least not doing bad things). And I feel better about myself when I'm not doing things I consider to be bad or wrong.

Robert Heilbronner observed that when you master logic, it masters you. You can say 2+2=5, but in your very core the truth is evident. When you master processes that help plan a more sensible future, they master you. They become compelling. And, funny thing, they become so powerfully compelling we call it courage.

When it happens, I'm not sure it feels "good" so much as it feels necessary.

[Side note: In history, is it an accident that pivotal courage has been exercised by clear thinkers? General Joshua Chamberlain, at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, was a grammar teacher. George Washington, as David McCullough notes in "1776" had the will to persevere because he understood the consequences of what he was fighting for. "Morality" and "Character" are so misunderstood that people forget the real issue is how should one deal with the simple daily problems of living.]
12.3.2005 9:27am
plunge (mail):
The implication is that God belief somehow solves the morality problem for you, or as you put it, that this is a plausible first-guess. But obviously, you need only to get as far as Plato in your study of philosophy to realize that it helps not a whit in resolving the question of "what is the good?" God or no God, we are left trying to define and explain what is good and why (and really, the God problem raises far more problems than it could ever purport to solve, because now instead of just having to justify morality, you are sent off chasing increasingly less and less related subjects of the particulars of theology, comparative religion, Biblical debates over how many rabbits chew cud, and so on, and when you get to the end of it you STILL have nothing to show for it all in terms of a moral explanation).

Now: morality. We're all in the same boat, theist and non-theist (sorry!). So where from here? I think there are some pretty solid reasons to think that IF (and this is a conditional, not a claim of an axiom!) we are going to have something called a morality to govern ourselves in society, then the very concept of morality itself presumes some pretty basic ideas, such as principles that apply to everyone and not just some people, fairness, and so on. Unfortunately, the history of morality (what people considered moral once, what they do today) pretty clearly demonstrates some extremely wide leeway in what is considered moral (though some of that has to do with the lack of desire TO have communal standards, or the clash of cultures that had developed some indepedently, and so on). However, I DO think there is a place for philosophy in morality. While the basic underlying values are just that: values one has or doesn't (and thankfully most of of us do), what we all do when arguing morality is make logical arguments. We hypothesize situations and try to generalize their examples. In short, it is possible to be MISTAKEN about some moral issue, because you have not thought deeply enough about it. So even though we cannot "prove" that life has moral value (or find any basis to agree on what fits into the "life" category, though I have some strong opinions), once we agree on some working definition, there is plenty of room for legitimate discussion.

There's obviously so much more to say, but those were the key points.

Now, what are you going to DO with all this information?
12.3.2005 2:37pm
Neuroscientist (mail):
My own fresh(?) perspective:

My beliefs stem from a sort of neo-Kantian idea that the only truly immoral thing is inconsistency, hypocrisy. Logic is an attempt to codify causality, and causality (ignoring some more esoteric philosophies) is a fundamental and inescapable part of reality. Attempts to deny causality are somewhere between intrinsically inconsistent and intrinsically false.

Morality follows from this in that we treat other human beings, in our daily lives, as if they are self-willed entities, with their own agentive (decision-making) function. To harm someone is to, in one way or another, deny them that agentive function; to fool them into making the wrong choices, or doing things to them about which they have no choice. Therefore, taking advantage of others is inconsistent with countless acts of our daily lives. From "do no harm" on a personal level, pretty much everything else can follow.

No, it's not a perfectly universal morality. I suspect it may be fairly culture-specific, and it doesn't answer questions about balancing personal and private goods. And, of course, not everyone loves the axiom. But it's a core idea that seems to work, at least for me.
12.3.2005 5:26pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
I suspect most people would agre with my axiom: "Humanity is good." (even if they are religious, I think this would play a large role in their determination of good vs. bad--take for instance the Judeo-Christian idea that God created humanity "in His image")

Of course, different people define humanity differently. It is how we define what a human is that gives us our morality.

Is a fetus a human being? Was Terri Schiavo, after the brain damage? What exactly is "human?" There are many other hypotheticals that some would consider not-human, others absolutely human, and others still "borderline cases." I won't go into what I value and why, all I will say is that I use a sliding scale, not a binary (human vs. not-human) mode of analysis.

WHY do I value humanity? Maybe it is as simple as that I was taught as a child to respect other people's suffering, and that I can imagine their suffering as my own.


Purchase of a DarylHerbert Humanoid Unit creates no warranty, express or implied, that he will actually act according to these principles. It very well may be that he can rationalize most of his actions according to those principles but does not actually live by them. And it's entirely possible that our brains are more "delusion generators" than "logic processors" when introspection is concerned...
12.3.2005 5:29pm
plunge (mail):
Placeholder post is broken.
12.3.2005 11:49pm
Earl Adams (mail):
I believe that when I die I'll be only ashes. No soul, no spirit, no continuing consciousness. No afterlife, no heaven, no hell, no reward, no punishment. Just ashes. So, why should I be good? My answer is that I should be good to make myself happy. I don't mean happy because I'm doing what Jesus wants. I mean happy in the sense of maximizing my pleasure over the course of my life. Yeah, I'm being good because it's hedonistic.

I'll be less happy if other people kill me, hurt me, steal from me, cheat me, lie to me, etc. Many other people are stronger and smarter than I; I'm sure they would crush me in a Hobbesian world. So, to protect myself, I want to prohibit killing, stealing, cheating, lying, etc. Luckily, most people feel the same way.

This of course is the social contract -- I won't hurt you if you don't hurt me; let's make that the law. In the long run we'll all be happier. This, I think, is the rational basis of morality, and it is sufficient reason to behave honestly and compassionately toward others with the expectation that they will behave honestly and compassionately toward me. (The principle is not quite the altruistic "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but rather more self-interested "Do unto others so you can demand they do the same unto you.")

Of course I was socialized from birth to accept this moral code decades before I could justify it rationally. But that doesn't invalidate it; on the contrary, it demonstrates that it works. I maximize my happiness and I propagate my genes. My society maximizes its happiness and propagates its culture. Morality works. If in the long run, on the average, morality didn't work we wouldn't do it.
12.4.2005 1:32am
jfxgillis (mail):
Allow me to establish the foundation for a moral axiom, say, "A starving baby is a bad thing."

1. Human nature is infintely complex.

2. Human nature is complex because human self-consciousness, whether divinely or profanely derived, is driven by two mutually exclusive impulses.

3. Those two impulses are the individual and social impulses.

4. The exact mixture of social and individual impulses is different for every person, every locale, every society and every civilization.

5. Therefore, neither radical individualism nor radical collectivism are practical theories for ordering human conduct.

As humans, we seek that balance both in ourselves and in the society we are part of in the guise of practical theories that are capable of ordering human behaviour. Hence, we assert moral axioms that prevent us from reducing human nature to either of the two impractical radicals.

Back to my axiom. Note that both the radical individualist and the radical collectivist--think Irish Potato famine in the 1830s, Ukranian Grain famine in the 1930s--are incapable of dealing with it. They will simply argue (rationalistically) that a starving baby is as morally neutral as the price of video game cartridge on the one hand, or a neccessary social sacrifice on the other. AND THEY MAY EVEN BE LOGICALLY CORRECT. And it is precisely because the logic of the two radicals is so compelling that we invent moral axioms to combat them.
12.4.2005 2:50pm
L. E. Hinton:
The fact is that I just don't have more rights than you. I don't have any special knowledge. I'm not God. I'm not your master. You were not born to serve my will. Nowhere in nature can I find an excuse to boss you about, make you do what I want. You're not a living tool, an object, a thing. You're not less than me. I've no reason to be proud. I've no proof of any special status, any exception in my case. My senses can give me no evidence of exaltedness. To indulge my vainglory is deluded, is false. The truth is, we're equals. To be anything but humble is a lie. To privilege my likes and dislikes over yours is a lie. To pretend that my values have some special importance is a lie. To set myself above you is a lie. And my identity is tied up with not lying.
12.4.2005 11:14pm
sbw (mail) (www):
L. E. Hinton, well expressed. "Humility" and "Sense of otherness" -- You describe two of my simple wisdoms. Now, understanding these first deductions from experience, and since we are all in this together, let's go further to develop two further stages:
2) Build the minimal framework necessary for social interaction.
3) Strengthen the processes used to decide how to act responsibly.

Part of the problem examining "morality" is that its concepts go fuzzy when people meld these three stages into the single word. Furthermore, people often believe that the labels we give to the results of a single instance of thinking how to act responsibly should the morals taught. So people teach "virtues" instead of helping people learn to discern what would be virtuous behavior. People who learn what to do, without understanding why and how, are forever disadvantaged -- and dangerous to the rest of us.
12.5.2005 9:11am
JohnEMack (mail):
Why does morality have to be grounded? All morality is a (sometimes sanctimoniously disguised) form of positive law. Ultimately, the basis for morality is the same as the basis for statutes, court-made rules or imperial dictates: somebody or something with the power to make us regret the opposite choice, tells us to do or not to do something.

The word "morality" itself derives from Latin "mos," custom, and more specifically, "Mos maiorem," custom of the ancestors. We learn morality when our parents (or their equavalents) tell us we are being "naughty." What this "cashes out" to is that our parents don't like what we are doing and we should cut it out. When we grow up and society (in its many incarnations) tells us to do or not to do something, it is telling us that we are being (or are about to be) naughty and there will be consequences if we keep going the way we are going.

To be sure, we can interalize these incentives or disincentives, and internalize them as "the right thing to do." And by any rational definition, they are the right thing to do, for the same reason that "stop crying and eat your food" uttered by mother makes stopping to cry and starting to eat the right thing to do.
12.5.2005 10:55am
Mark Hagerman (mail) (www):
I would say that the core goal of my ethical system is to maximize the reproductive potential of my bloodline. Why, I'm not sure, though a billion years of evolutionary pressure may have something to do with it.

The detailed expression of that imperative, however, looks very much like Judeo-Christian morality (with a few differences).
12.5.2005 2:00pm
MattXIV (mail):
Ultimately, a lack of a visceral emotional rejection of or cognitive dissonance in the axiom is why I accept it. I see morality practically as being defined by a subset the emotional reactions (guilt, anger at being wronged, feeling good about oneself, etc) to the behavior of the self or others that is developed in a similar way to aesthetic and other personal preferences. My moral system is created by working backwards from these preferences to develop a set of rules that is internally consistent and as simple as possible that work well for outlining what actions would be harmonious with my emotional reactions. I then use the resulting system to remove the logical contraditions in the emotional reactions by conditioning my reactions to better conform with the system. By iterating this process, the end result is a system that is both logically and emotionally comfortable. The fact that it is ultimately arbitrary doesn't bother me since it is not any more arbitrary than any other moral system that could be constructed, and between options which are equally valid with regard to other criteria, there is no reason not to chose the most personally comfortable.
12.5.2005 6:10pm
rodkinnison (mail):
Well, at some level, *any* belief system does run down to various axioms which, however much one might wish to believe they are unquestionably correct, one does have to take on faith. Even science rests on a belief that the universe is explainable, that physical laws are constant or change only slowly, etc. Those are not provable — but they seem "reasonable".

I'm not sure if I'm "deeply irreligious", but for me, most of my ethical principles come back to a sense of duty. I like living in a world with computers, electricity, abundant food, etc. In other words, I *like* the benefits of civilization. I could, of course, live a life solely for my short-term pleasure. But if previous generations had done that, we'd all be living in caves — a world I wouldn't want to live in. If *I* did that, I'd be doing nothing to ensure that future generations (including my children) get to continue to enjoy the benefits of civilization — indeed to gain the benefits of further progress. Therefore, if I don't do my small part to keep civilization intact and progressing, then I'm part of the problem — not part of the solution. Yes, there are "free riders" who reap the benefits and contribute nothing — but if everyone did that, the system wouldn't work. I get a sense of contentment by being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
12.5.2005 8:52pm