Ethics and moralities

This is a personal exploration of ethics and moralities.

There isn't yet a coherent theme here, but rather a series of separate observations. This may eventually change. I favour "moral engineering" based on "enlightenment principles".

link to Why Believe in a God Campaign

Why Wikipedia?

Some references on this page are to Wikipedia. It has a reasonably consistent style, and its pages have further references to external resources. But I didn't get my morals from Wikipedia!

“ The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom - we wouldn't accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance - shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions. 
Daniel Dennett's Darwinian Mind: An Interview with a 'Dangerous' Man

“ Do the gods say to do something because it is good, or is something good because the gods say to do it? 
The religious person who answers the former has to explain why they would not rape and murder if god told them to.
The religious person who answers the latter has to explain what the ultimate moral arbiter beyond god is, and what sense it makes to say that morality comes from god if even god is constrained by some other moral source one step back again.

The Moral Landscape: Q & A with Sam Harris

Purposes and sources of moralities

This is discussing moralities that could in principle be documented.

Purposes of moralities

A person might have a morality for various reasons. Using myself as an example:

  • I may exploit one myself, to help me meet my goals, and perhaps first to help me identify my goals.
  • I may impose one on someone else, to change their behaviour so that they will help me meet my goals. In other words, for my own selfish reasons.
  • I may impose one on someone else, to help them identify and/or meet goals that may be worthwhile for them. In other words, for altruistic reasons. (A typical example would be parents wanting their children to have a good life or good afterlife).
  • The morality may not benefit me or others, but may simply propagate itself because it is good at doing so. In other words, it may be a meme or meme-plex.

Absolute morality?

Many religious people claim that their god(s) is the source for some sort of absolute or universal morality, and without it we are in danger of an "anything goes" attitude. But there is no universal morality that can be used as a reference:

  • Aliens with different biology might necessarily have a different morality. Imagine aliens with one or three sexes.
  • Different religions have different moralities. (As do different groups of non-religious people).
  • The morality of any religion typically evolves over centuries.
  • Different denominations of the same religion tend to have different moralities.

The Moral Zeitgeist

People, including religious people, typically pick-n-choose parts of their moralities. If I know someone is a Christian, I don't know whether they are for or against: abortion; contraception; stem cell research; gay partnerships; equal opportunities for women; assisted suicide; etc. But we all (including atheists) tend to be constrained in our behaviour by: law; human nature; moral zeitgeist; upbringing; local community norms; etc. This builds a morality that each of us starts with.

We evolved to coexist in communities of perhaps 150 or so. Some instinctive behaviours follow from that, such as reciprocal altruism. The same instincts are there even when we live in bigger communities, and account for many acts of altruism here too. Our brains have evolved mechanisms (such as mirror neurons) which help us achieve empathy. Once we can "put oneself into another's shoes", a lot follows from that.

The Moral Zeitgeist is available to all of us. It comprises universal consensuses within a society about what makes something morally acceptable, based originally on our instinctive behaviour. As society changes, so the Moral Zeitgeist itself evolves to adapt to new experiences and conditions. It will typically be compatible with local laws.

Where can atheist parents get a morality for their children?

Consciousness-raiser: "Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled."

It is easier to copy a morality, if necessary modifying it, than to design one. So the obvious source is the current local Moral Zeitgeist, modified if desired. But other sources are available, for example religious texts and humanist ideas.

Where did writers of ancient religious texts get their moralities?

Probably in a similar way to how atheist parents at that time would have got their morality, the local Moral Zeitgeist at that time. But typically modified according to specific messages of that religion-to-be.

Where do modern-day religious people get their moralities?

Typically as a mixture of the moralities in their ancient religious texts and the current local Moral Zeitgeist, modified if desired. The more fundamental their religious beliefs, the more the moralities in their religious texts will be used without modification, if necessary by dropping contradictory aspects of the current local Moral Zeitgeist.

It is possible for religious people to be moral by rejecting the bad bits of their religion, cherry-picking the good bits, and supplementing and complementing those with principles from outside their religion.

Putting it bluntly!

Jeffrey W. Martz:
To agnositic secular humanists, morality means enhancing human happiness, dignity, and quality of life (which I will refer from here on out as HHDQ)....
Monotheistic religions also consider human happiness, dignity, and quality of life to be important, but they have another priority that trumps it: sucking the dick of a powerful imaginary friend in exchange for a reward (which might be abbreviated as "SGD"). The God of the Bible cares more about SGD than HHDQ, and religious atrocities throughout history are based on the same fucked-up priorities....
Many of the things that religious authorities consider "immoral" are not clearly so under HHDQ, and can only be considered "immoral" if we assume 1) God is real, 2) that what God wants is, by definition, moral (no matter what that might be), and 3) that the things the Bible (or Koran) says God wants really are what God wants. Homosexual activity with other consenting adults does not (neccessarily) violate HHDQ, at least not if both partners are happy with it. Therefore, agnostic secular humanists do not consider it immoral. Christians and Muslims think that God doesn't like it (for reasons that He never clearly and rationally explains), which makes it immoral. SGD > HHDQ.

Who is in control?

"God-given right or duty"

If someone says "I have a god-given right", or "I have a god-given duty", dive for cover!

They intend to make you do something you don't want to do, or they intend to stop you doing something you want to do, or there will be a loud bang, with blood and body-parts all over the place.

Their statements are a signature of intolerance, with the excuse that "God made me do it". And they never have to prove it!

Free will

How can anyone determine whether they have free will? If one person does, presumably all do (and vice versa). (That is, it appears unlikely that religious people have free will and atheists don't! Do people lose free will if they become atheists?) Yet opinions differ. This suggests that the very question isn't a good one. In practice, we might as well all act as though we have it, which is typically what we do anyway!

Some religious people claim that being an atheist implies lack of free will, because it implies that our thoughts are only electro-chemical activity in our brains. Therefore, we cannot condemn people for their actions, and we should empty the prisons. But if we want to reduce and prevent crime, of course we must hold people responsible and punish them! The probability of punishment will set up the chemical conditions in the brain that will help steer that person towards avoiding punishment. It works for animals, even though many people claim that animals don't have free will.

For interest, a summary of my belief about free will is:

  • What I will decide to do next week is inherently uncomputable, even by me. (This is primarily because of the chaotic nature of the universe).
  • After I have made a decision next week, it would in principle be possible to show that every particle that influenced my decision was fully determined by the laws of physics.

This may be a trivialisation of Dennett's "Freedom Evolves"; I'm not sure.

Personal responsibility

I'm an Atheist: the buck stops here!

Many religious people claim that atheists cannot have a real sense of ethics or morals. They say that, without some sort of gods, "anything goes". That claim is false, but there is surely something that all religious people and atheists can agree upon? We can all be sure that, if things go wrong, atheists will never say:

"God told me to do it", or "I thought I was doing God's will".

We can all be sure that, if atheists do bad things, they will never say:

"Satan (or the Devil) made me do it".

Atheists have to take personal responsibility where, in many cases, religious people can pass the buck!

My moral toolkit

My own moral code is based on a simple injunction: "Avoid harm to innocent people, otherwise let people do what they want".

Over perhaps 20 years I have analysed every single word and combination of words of that injunction in novel situations, and I have mentally built a "moral toolkit" that appears to work for me. This toolkit includes "be intolerant only towards causes of harm and towards intolerance".

I normally adopt an attitude that "things are OK when practiced by consenting adults in private".

Moral navigation

Moral Compass

Moral direction

The Centre for Defined Ethics

Susan B. Anthony
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires. 

Nicholas Epley in "Believers' estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs":
People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want.... This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing. 

Human Rights

Thomas Paine: "A Declaration of Rights, is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also. Whatever is my right as a man, is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee, as well as possess."

Philosopher Joseph Raz: "rights are grounds of duties in others."

The 10 Commandments

Some religious people talk about their moral compass. What does that mean?

Typically a compass points north. That doesn't mean that everyone travels north. They choose their individual directions and destinations, then go there. The compass helps people confidently make and implement their own decisions, for good or bad. Two people using identical compasses may make contradictory decisions. And that is even where the compasses themselves agree. In fact, it is unlikely that they do.

Religious people often display this incompatibility and unpredictability. Will they kill or cure? Will they tolerate or not? Let's be honest - religious people sometimes interpret their religion's moral codes to support their own prior decisions.

Atheists aren't consistent either. But they never claim support from a religion.

Moral Sat Nav

You choose your own model. Choose whether to stick with the original maps, or download new maps. (They get out of date very quickly, but some people prefer to stay with old maps). Choose whether you want a voice telling you what to do, or have it be silent. Choose the type of voice - woman, man, (and if the latter, John Cleese). Do you want the short route or the fast route?

You can set it to tell you about traps and dangers, unless you are so virtuous that you don't need to be warned. You can ignore it when you want to, and it just says "recalculating" without criticising you. You can deliberately make diversions, and it will later guide you back onto the true route. It will sometimes lead you along unsuitable routes if you don't exercise common sense.

If you accidentally type in the wrong destination, it will get you to where you shouldn't be. You may not even recognise that you have gone astray.

Perfect for religion in the 21st century. Do pretty much what you want, while still being able to claim that you were conforming to some superior external reference.

Human Rights

The United Nations "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" doesn't directly define a moral code. But it can help. Consider one example:

Article 19:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

How should any one of us treat other people where freedom of opinion and expression is concerned? We don't have to agree with the opinions expressed. But we should at least tolerate them in practice, as long as doing so doesn't result in another article being contravened. We certainly shouldn't attempt to censor them simply because of disagreement.

It is impractical to say that we should all work to ensure that everyone else can exercise their human rights. In fact, attempting to do so would probably contravene our own rights, because we would no time left to form and express our own opinions! But we should at least not expend effort denying other people their rights.

The 10 Commandments

The 10 Commandments long ago became obsolescent. They are pretty useless in the 21st Century. But they were never a competent moral code; see What's Wrong With The Ten Commandments?

In general, religions are not good at morality and moral codes. This lack of competence leads to problems:

  • Religions create and promote poor moral codes
  • Religions believe they have good moral codes, and so try to enforce them
  • Religions under-estimate moral codes from other sources

New commandments

Enlightened people act as though there are a set of extra commandments. For example, see New Commandments below.

These New Commandments represent the slow and incomplete maturing of Homo sapiens. Sometimes religious people helped the acceptance of these New Commandments. This was typically in spite of their religion/church. Religions tend to favour unenlightened morals, because religions exploit one of their main assets: ancient texts written by ignorant people and since then edited by people and organisations with various agendas of their own.

Commentary on the existing and new commandments

Different denominations use different numbers. C = Catholic. J = Jewish. P = Protestant. (There are variations).

Number Commandment
Commentary Crime in UK?
1 1 0
I am the Lord your God
This is God boasting!

These are not a moral code.

They reveal a paranoid, insecure god, trying to divert attention away from other gods, (what were they?), and demanding the sort of worship familiar in totalitarian countries. These are bullying to build a religion and get bums on seats.

Note that Catholic veneration of images corresponds to the lack of a clear commandment against the use of graven images, and this causes the numbering of the Catholic versions of the Commandments to be different from that point onwards.

1 2 1
You shall have no other gods before me
God trying to beat the competition by dictat.
1 2 2
You shall not make for yourself an idol
I often photograph churches and other religious buildings and objects!
2 3 3
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God
Oh, God! I keep getting that wrong.
3 4 4
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
I have better things to do. (And so have most religious people).
4 5 5
Honour your father and mother
Only to the extent they deserve it. It isn't clear whether this is part of a moral code, or an extension of worshiping authority. No
5 6 6
You shall not murder
Catholic - "kill"
Murder (as defined by law) - no. Kill - sometimes it is justified.

These are part of a moral code.

They are variously incomplete, unnecessary, patriarchal, and attempts at thought control.

They typically need a lot of interpretation (for example case law), and if treated as absolutes they can be worse than the action being condemned.

So, in the 21st Century, what use are they?

Murder - yes
Kill - sometimes
6 7 7
You shall not commit adultery
This is about men not having sex with other men's wives. Typical patriarchy! What about all other combinations? No
7 8 8
You shall not steal
Unless it is necessary on humanitarian grounds. Yes
8 9 9
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
Only "neighbour"? Why not others? Perjury - yes
Otherwise - no
C J  P
9 10 10
You shall not covet your neighbour's wife
What about your neighbour's husband or partner?
"Lust after" - why not? "Do something about it" - that's different.
C  J  P
10 10 10
You shall not covet your neighbour's house
"Lust after" - why not? "Do something about it" - that's different. No
The New Commandments
  Do not commit genocide
Joshua 6:21
Numbers 31 & 32
1 Chronicles 21
Deuteronomy 3
Exodus 12:29

All of these activities were rife in the Old Testament, (see left), sometimes ordered by Yahweh himself. Some of them, especially slavery, continued into the New Testament. Islam (supported by the Koran and Haddith) is particularly bad.

These New Commandments represent the slow and incomplete maturing of Homo sapiens beyond the primitive and ignorant bronze age culture of the Old Testament. They are a measure of the "enlightenment" we should all aspire to.

Sometimes religious people helped the acceptance of these New Commandments. This was typically in spite of their religion/church. Even now some religions and some religious organisations are complicit in breaking some of these New Commandments, obvious examples being discrimination and child rape and other abuse. We must hope that the same will not be said at the start of the 22nd Century. (Only religions can drag their feet that long!)

Do not rape
Judges 21
Rape In The Bible
Do not own slaves
Exodus 21
Slavery in the Bible
Do not abuse children
Genesis 22:1-24
Leviticus 26:22
Numbers 21:35
2 Kings 2:24
Do not commit incest
Genesis 19:32-36
Top 6 Incestuous Relationships In The Bible
Do not discriminate on grounds of ... (various)
  Mostly, yes
Do not deny the nature of the universe
Do not do long-term damage to the environment
Do not actively thwart the human rights of others