The Moral Code

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

This is today's Austin Cline poster, and it alludes to a topic that I think is fascinating.

I know that the people who visit this blog come from a variety of religious backgrounds, and have a variety of ethical frameworks. The question at hand is, where did that framework come from?

While I don't think we have any screechy fundies that hang out around here, I have been asked how I can determine a moral code without a belief in a religion or a creator god. This question always baffles me. Do fundamentalists honestly believe that those of us who don't believe as they do are out there killing and eating babies since we don't have the restraining influence of a punishing god to restrain our behavior? Seriously?

However, the question at hand, i.e., where do derive your moral code, is an important and legitimate one. For some people, the guidance provided by their faith is the cornerstone of their ethics, and it works for them. But what about the rest of us?

The discussions of objective and subjective morality has been beaten to death, so I'm not interested in rehashing it here. I am interested in how agnostics and atheists determine their moral code. Is it enlightened self-interest? Social-contract ethics? Kant's Categorical Imperative?

For myself, I'm a fan of Kant. Thinking of my choice in the context of everyone in the world making the same choice gives my actions context and scale.

I don't pretend to know all the answers, or to have a corner on moral and ethical behavior. I guess it just bothers me when the fundies claim they do.

20 comments:

Shawn Powers said...

My non-fundie, Christian view is that morality comes from God. I've established my disdain for fundy views on most things, so I'm sure that will be taken with the respectful tone in which it's offered. (ie, that's just what I think)

Interestingly, I'm not entirely passionate about that view, and although C.S. Lewis addresses it very well in "Mere Christianity" -- I so wish I could argue with him about it. (His arguments absolute conclusions tick me off)

Is it strange I find myself often wishing to argue the points that would negate the existence of God? The brain of Shawn is indeed a weird place...

Nathan said...

It strikes me that morality isn't really that complicated. Don't be mean to people. Don't lie to them or about them. Don't hit them. Don't take their stuff. We're talking kindergarten stuff here.

On the other hand, Ethics have lots of gray areas. Is it stealing to take the leftover donuts from work home at the end of the day if you know they'll only be thrown out? Do you have a responsibility to tell an acquaintance that you saw her husband making out with their nanny? If you find a hundred-dollar-bill in a public plaza and don't see anyone obviously looking for it after a 1/2-hour or so, do you have to turn it into the police...or can you keep it?

Frankly, I don't think a religious grounding is going to make any of those answers more simple.

Shawn Powers said...

Nathan -- right, morality isn't complicated, but the question is where does it *come* from. In many ways, morality bucks against natural selection hard.

Ethics, yeah, that's a different beast altogether. And religious folks don't like the idea of non-absolutes. (I do though... I'm such a rebel)

Cindi in CO said...

I have to agree with Nathan - morality isn't that complicated.

I don't knowingly turn to my faith when I make a moral choice; right and wrong are pretty deeply ingrained in my world view.

I hate to quote Bill & Ted, but, "Be excellent to each other" covers most situations quite well.

Shawn Powers said...

Right -- I completely agree with Nathan. I'm just not sure where it comes from. Morality seems counterproductive to survival. Maybe we've evolved past the point of natural selection? (I know with my poor eyesight and allergies, I'd have been eaten long ago...)

So, is this next stage of evolution something entirely different than natural selection? If we name it now, can we patent it? :D

John the Scientist said...

Shawn - morality is only counterproductive to survival in solitary species such as cats. Social, cooperative animals get along better with a moral code.

Heinlein went over the pro-survival characterisitcs of morality and partitism in Exapnded Universe, and I tend to agree with his broad conclusions.

John the Scientist said...

partitism? patriotism.

Preview is my friend.

Janiece Murphy said...

Shawn, I knew that you considered God the foundation of your moral code. I have no issue with that - how people choose to define their ethics and morality is really a private matter. My issue is when someone tries to imply that because I lack faith, that automatically makes me amoral or immoral. You've never implied that, and you've also proven yourself to be eminently reasonable when it comes to discussing these matters. If that makes the Brain of Shawn a weird place, then it's my kind of weird place.

Nathan, I think morality is easy, which is why I'm so fond of Kant. If everyone in the world made the same choice you did, what type of world would it be? So simple, but so true.

Ethics can be a different matter. Ethical dilemmas (defined as situations where all available choices lead to an unethical result) just SUCK.

Michelle K said...

I am not religious, although I was raised Catholic, and I think that religion actually confuses the issue of morality and ethics.

First and foremost, because religion brings in an "us versus them" mentality, that allows some to justify really awful behavior by cherry picking from their religious texts.

Second, because some people seem to think that religious texts give then all the answers, and so are unable to extrapolate how to behave or believe in a situation not covered by those texts. In this case they tend to look to another outside source for their ethics.

My morality comes from life and experience, dumb as that may sound. I'm Kantian, in that my guiding idea tends to be that the ends do not justify the means. But I arrived at this position by seeing and feeling what happens when people use others as an ends only. And it sucks.

And, sorry Shawn, but I do not believe that morality comes from God. I think God likes that we have developed into ethical and moral beings--but I don't think God caused us to be ethical and moral.

Such a belief, to me, negates the idea of free will, and if we don't have free will, then, well, God is a big jerk.

Why? Because it means that God purposely allowed series killers and rapists and dictators to be created, by NOT giving them a connection to the morality and ethics all others have.

It means that God could have saved such victims, but purposely *choose* not to, by not giving such mentally ill individuals the same traits as everyone else got.

Michelle K said...

And I think that morality is the basis for evolution. Without the morality, we would not have evolved to where we are today. We would kill off our competition or allow the least fit and the elderly to die, because doing so is on our *short term* best interests.

I think morality is what allows us to look past the short term, and into the long term good.

Shawn Powers said...

As far as morality coming from God -- I even mentioned in my original hypocritical statement that I'm not entirely convinced... A willingness to shrug my shoulders and say, "I don't really know" is very refreshing. :)

The thing that has always intrigued me, is where Kindergarten morality (because really, is there any other kind?) originates. Is it a learned behavior? Is it inherent genetically? Has morality for the betterment of mankind evolved us into beings that understand (if not practice) morality?

And I guess I should clarify a bit, I don't think that God has kept morality away from rapists, etc -- but it's the free will that allows those folks to ignore the morality that they know is correct.

I'm not terribly passionate about one viewpoint over another, it's just an intriguing topic altogether. And since I have no idea who Kant is, I have some reading to do now. :)

Janiece Murphy said...

Shawn, it is fascinating, and the basis for much discussion. And I don't think you're a hypocrite - I think you're an unusually self-honest person of faith. There are contradictions inherent in being a person of faith, and the fact that you acknowledge them and are trying to address them in your daily life speaks well of you, not ill.

I feel another "Shawn Appreciation Day" coming on...

Nathan said...

OK,

Where does my sense of morality come from? Mommy and Daddy. They were quite religious, so does my sense of morality derive from religion?

Let's go back a few generations in my family. Let's hypothesize that between 6 and 10 generations ago, there were a string of ancestors who, while being technically Jewish, self-identified as Atheist.
If this sense of morality originated with these ancestors or was even merely passed on through these generations, then possibly, the sense of morality I inherited/was taught, had its origins in some completely secular philosophy.

The answer is unknowable and, in fact, fairly unimportant.

What remains relevant are the Fundies you refer to who believe the your lack of religion precludes a sense of morality on your part.

I'd submit that their myopia and rigidity is what is truly immoral.

Take that FundieZombieMoralizer!

And while we're at it, could somebody please Photoshop a FundieZombieMoralizer?

Michelle K said...

Shawn,

I don't think your hypocritical at all. I in fact appreciate your willingness to discuss this subject! Because I also don't have any hard and fast views and am willing to be convinced my view is mistaken.

I agree with what Nathan said, that to some degree morality comes from our parents--they teach us right and wrong.

But I think to an even greater degree it stems from our empathy. Which is why when a religion divides people into us and them, things can get dangerous.

Think about this example, you see a video of someone falling down the stairs. Your immediate reaction is probably to twinge and think, OUCH!

You then watch a similar video, but it's Kim Jong Il falling down the stairs. In which care, your reaction may well be, "maybe we'll be lucky and he'll break his neck!" not because we are immoral, but because he has done so many terrible things, he has become other--he has stepped outside our morality--outside the circle of those with whom we feel empathy.

As far as bad people, I was trying to emphasize the serial killers, because it's not that they are ignoring an inherent sense of morality, it is that they are, in some way, broken. They have no sense of morality or empathy, and so they do not see what they do as wrong. They may know intellectually that what they do is wrong, but they don't feel it, and so can ignore the rules if they think they won't get caught.

I do not believe that they were made specifically deficient in morality by God, only that it happened by chance.

That's what I was trying to say there: sometimes we are biologically made one way, and it's simply they way our genes turned out.

To believe otherwise--to me--means that we don't have true free will.

Janiece Murphy said...

And while we're at it, could somebody please Photoshop a FundieZombieMoralizer?

I so want to see this...

vince said...

Oh, my. You know they have classes in this in college philosophy departments, don't you?

Should we act so as to maximize good (pleasure) in the aggregate, as per Utilitarianism as first laid out by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham? Of course, this "the greatest good for the greatest number" has often been abused. Or is it that free people need to agree on some ground rules in order to live together in harmony - the social contract of John Locke? Or John Rawls arguement that all social primary goods - liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect - are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored? Or your favorite, good ol' Immanuel Kant and his "Categorical Imperative" based on the concept of duty?

And what, if any, difference is there between moraily and ethics. Morality is defined as the concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong, or right or good conduct, while ethics is usually defined as motivation based on ideas of right and wrong, or a particular system of principles and rules concerning duty. So aren't both concerned with right and wrong? And doesn't your ethical behavior depend upon your moral framework?

We must be careful when we say morality is easy. How do we determine, for example, when it is moral to withdraw feeding tubes from people who are unconscious and unresponsive. How should we respond to the use of a feeding tube to maintain the life of a person who is permanently unconscious and unresponsive? If there is no directive, how can we know how someone would fell about being kept on a feeding tube indefinitely in an unresponsive state? And if we do not know, does indefinite tube feeding constitute an indignity for any patient in that condition? Is it moral to remove the tube because scarce resources are better allocated? And how do we make that determination? What if we say "What is the point of keeping someone like that alive if there is no chance of her ever regaining consciousness?" Is this because we believe that the person no longer exists?

So many good comments, such a huge subject, so little space.

And so I sign off with this classic song:

Immanuel Kant was a real piss-ant who was very rarely stable.
Heideggar, Heideggar was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel.
And Whittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.
There's nothing Nieizsche couldn't teach 'ya 'bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.
John Stewart Mill, of his own free will, after half a pint of shanty was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away, half a crate of whiskey every day!
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
And Hobbes was fond of his Dram. And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:
"I drink, therefore I am."
Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he's pissed.

vince said...

Let's try that link again:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_WRFJwGsbY

Janiece Murphy said...

Vince, I've actually taken that class - "Ethical Decision Making." It was my favorite class in my current degree program at D.U. It was also one of many occasions where I was asked how I managed not to be a baby-killer-cannibal, since I'm such a non-believin' heathen.

I loved that class.

Michelle K said...

Mine was a public health ethics class.

Just five students, so it was a fantastic experience, where we all felt open to share our life experiences and how that shaped our ethics.

Anne C. said...

Wow, what a great subject. I took a class in philanthropy in undergrad, but it was just an excuse for the sociologist professors to rant about how Andrew Carnegie was like Hitler, etc.

I'm with Michelle on this one (and I love the Kant approach, Janiece!). No matter who you are, you are a godless heathen to some other religion. Religion can be described as a sociological construct, so it's really society setting the rule structure (which is why it's sometimes immoral to be a homosexual and sometimes not). *However,* as an agnostic, I say my morality comes from two sources -- my connection with the world (which is what God is to me, so in a way Shawn is right), and what I was taught by my parents and society. Those dismissing the taught aspect need only look at the sometimes heartless behavior of kindergarteners (and I don't mean they are being bad -- they don't know the difference, in my opinion). So you tell them, over and over, "no, it's not OK to tease your sister when you are bored".