Tuesday, November 28, 2017

“Where did morality come from?”

I often find theistic apologists asking this question to non-theists. While some individuals may be genuinely interested in finding an answer to this question, apologists tend to pose it in an effort to stump people who do not hold that morality is sourced in a supernatural consciousness which issues commands and demands obedience. Sadly, this “Gotcha!” tactic is all too often successful as a sparring device, as the kinds of responses many non-believers give to this question often leave the unmistakable impression that either they had not considered the question before, or that they had considered it but never came to any satisfying answers.

Of course, theists gravitate to questions of this sort because in the final analysis, their theistic worldview depends on having no answers. What this means is that believers are hoping for responses that essentially reduce to “Gee, I donno!” revealing a gap of knowledge in which the believer’s inflatable god can be made to fit quite comfortably. As such, the purpose of this question is not to probe an important philosophical area of inquiry, but to corner thinkers into surrendering their minds to a primitive belief system.

The maneuver has its seductive allure for believers, for they think they have the perfect answer: “Morality comes from God,” say theists, apparently thinking that this reply is sufficient to support the belief that there is a god in the first place. Unfortunately, many have come to theism through the doors of “Duh, I donno, must be God did it!” proving once again that religious hope is an insidious blend of wishful fantasy and intellectual vacuity, a pretense that what one imagines is real against the backdrop of a determination to ignore the facts of reality staring one right in the face.

With seemingly endless confusion about the nature of morality, its basis, and its relationship to man coming from the world’s religions as well as from academia, the question “Where did morality come from?” is sure to prove its staying power in the apologetic arsenal. And devotees of the latest fashions in theology and apologetics are prone to a blindness which keeps them from seeing the brute immorality of their entire worldview’s methodological paradigm: to elevate hope in the imaginary above what we can discover and validate about reality on an objective basis (cf. here), and consign their resulting incongruities to “mystery” (cf. here), efforts which require the shape-shifting dopplegangery of religious doublethink to spin such reality-denial into something that is supposedly virtuous.

Depending on what specifically is packed into it, the question “Where did morality come from?” may actually be fallaciously complex, in a manner not too dissimilar from the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Taken at face value, the question suggests that morality originated somewhere else and then traveled here, and we are merely hapless recipients of its gifts. Did it hop on a bus or catch a ride on a comet? If that’s truly the case, given the state of the world today, one may reasonably offer that the more pressing question is: When is morality finally going to finally get here? For it seems that precious few lead authentically moral lives. If morality traveled to the human condition, or was sent here from somewhere else, it seems that it has impressed itself on only very few.

But a more charitable understanding of the question might simply interpret it as querying as to the origins or source of morality in terms of its rational basis, its genetic roots, its philosophical foundations. But to pursue this line of inquiry rationally, one would have to have a rational understanding of morality in mind from the very outset, and again, where do we find such an animal if not in rational philosophy?

Typical responses that I’ve seen to such queries include the notion that morality is something that we’ve evolved with (e.g., it just comes along as a bonus to natural selection), that morality stems from a hard-wired “survival instinct” (which served Japanese kamikaze pilots as well as early Christian ascetics, along with hordes of others throughout history, rather poorly), that morality is a cultural convention (meaning that one would have no use for morality if he found himself stranded all alone on a deserted island), that morality is the result of social conditioning, and, oh yes, that morality is sourced in a supernatural consciousness which determines what is good and bad, right and wrong, etc.

Deficiencies that tend to be common to each of these approaches include:
- The assumption that morality is essentially or primarily a social matter  
- The failure to explain why man needs morality  
- The assumption that morality is uncomfortable if not downright punitive  
- The assumption that self-sacrifice is virtuous  
- Proneness for taking man’s need for values for granted
What I find ironic in the case of “secular” reactions to the question “Where did morality come from?” is the fact that the conceptions of morality which they assume share conspicuous affinities with the religious view of morality, such as the portrayal of self-sacrifice as not only virtuous but a necessary outward sign of moral behavior, the repudiation of self-interest (notice how common it is for secularists today to excoriate capitalism for its “heartless selfishness”), the primacy of the needs of the group over the needs of the individual, the assumption that moral goodness ultimately hinges on someone’s will, emphasis on some undefinable “higher purpose” (whether it’s “God’s will” or the will of the state), etc.

I find this ironic because in spite of the accusations, name-calling and hostility expressed on both sides, secularists and theists tend to have a lot more in common under the skirt than most on either side would be comfortable confessing (without, of course, spinning those commonalities in some self-affirming manner). Both sides, in their own ways, tend to divide all of humanity into two opposing collectives, the chosen vs. the damned. If their behavior is any indication, morality must have come from a very dreadful place!

And, as a side note, what I find both instructive and, dare I say a tad humorous, both religionists and secularists overwhelmingly have only disparaging things to say about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism: they’re locked tight in agreement that (a) morality is a collective enterprise which is distinguished by self-sacrifice and which takes values for granted, and (b) Objectivism is bad. Notice any patterns here?

Discussions between theists and non-theists on the topic of morality often (but certainly not consistently) suggest that both parties are in general agreement that morality is somehow important and assume that morality is necessary for some reason. But who needs morality and why anyone would need morality are typically not issues that come up for discussion. Unfortunately, by not exploring these issues before getting into questions about “where morality comes from,” thinkers allow any number of hidden assumptions to go unacknowledged and unchallenged. This raises the suspicion, in my mind anyway, that morality is important to many thinkers for the wrong reasons. For example, theists, especially apologists, tend to find morality important primarily as a club to beat over the heads of non-theists while many secularists seem to find issues of moral concern important only insofar as they can deflect theists’ challenges on the topic (otherwise, free spliffs for all!).

Moreover, exploring the questions of why morality is important and who needs it encourages (if not outright forces) thinkers to formulate a clear understanding of what they mean by morality in the first place. Efforts to explain why morality is important and why an individual needs it will not be complete without a succinct definition of what morality is.

However, as I’ve mentioned in past posts on this topic, I have not found a definition of morality in the Christian bible.

Apologists sometimes dismiss this observation by declaring that the bible is not a dictionary or lexicon. But this overlooks the fact that a book need not be a dictionary in order to define important terms. After all, doesn’t 1 John 3:4 constitute a definition of ‘sin’ when it states “sin is the transgression of the law”? And doesn’t Hebrews 11:1 offer a definition of ‘faith’ when it states “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”? In fact, if a source presumes to present itself as an authoritative guide on a matter as important as morality, wouldn’t it behoove its writers to at the very minimum define their terms? Excuses for the bible’s failure to do just this while insisting that it is so authoritative a guide on morality as to call it “divinely inspired,” simply crumble at first handling. But again, perhaps understanding what morality is and why anyone would need it is not the priority here; as I mentioned, my suspicion is that religionists have come to view discussions of morality useful primarily for their apologetic expedience.

So where does morality come from after all?

Generally speaking, it seems quite clear to me, when considering the question “Where does morality come from?” in its most charitable light, that one has fundamentally two initial options by way of answering it: on the one hand he can suppose that morality comes from existence, or on the other he can suppose it comes from non-existence. My own view is that morality comes from existence, not from non-existence, from what is real as opposed to what is not real, and I think it’s important to make this explicit at the very beginning as it rules out an entire category of inapplicable contenders from the outset.

Of course, some thinkers of course may bristle at such a confrontation as this, either thinking it unnecessary, or finding it crass and insensitive. I can only suppose that such reactions are motivated by an urgency to preserve a blurriness between what is real and what is not in order to protect something held sacred.

There may be some reasons for this, but most likely they would be prejudicial in nature. For example, in my experience academic philosophers in particular tend to prefer highfalutin jargon, circuitous complexity, and symbolic calculus which, although fashionable in analytic philosophy, leave the issue shrouded in obscurity. Moreover, failure to distinguish explicitly between existence and imagination, for example, increases the possibility for thinkers to ignore this distinction and confuse what they have been imagining all along with what is real. Any thinker will always have the ability to imagine things larger than life, and given that what he imagines may break far beyond the constraints of reality, the reality that actually exists may tend to seem less significant and merely temporary by comparison, especially if he is not mindful of the fundamental nature of the distinction between the two. The reality of flesh and blood, of fragile bones and proneness to disease, for example, that is inherent to the human condition, can only pale in significance when compared to a preferred imaginary alternative such as “the resurrection” or a socialist utopia.

So a theist, whose worldview stands on the very blurring of the distinction between reality and imagination, may in fact be predisposed to dismissing a theory of values which takes seriously reality as it actually is (as opposed to fantasized alternatives) and which centers its focus on man’s biological needs, needs which he himself faces whether he likes it or not, and on the values which satisfy those needs which he may take for granted (cf. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself” – Mt. 6:34).

However, even if a thinker agrees that these are important distinctions to keep in mind, he very well may not find the answer “morality comes from existence” very satisfying. In that case there’s good news: we can be more to the point. Not only does morality come from existence, it specifically comes from man’s need for values, something which demonstrably and undeniably exists as an inherent part of his nature as a biological organism. It is man’s nature qua the rational animal which lays the metaphysical foundation of an objective system of morality and dictates which moral system is suited to his nature.

Like all biological organisms, man faces a fundamental alternative: life vs. death. Life is not an automatic given for man. His life is conditional, which means: he has certain needs which must be met in order for him to continue living. Meeting these needs does not happen all by itself. On the contrary, man must act, and he acts by choice, and thus he needs an objective standard on which to build a code of values to guide his choices and actions. This is absolute and inalterable, and an individual’s moral system needs to take these facts into account.

To dismiss these points as “subjective” represents a failure to grasp what is being defended here. It also suggests a failure to grasp the distinction between objectivity and subjectivism. Objectivity is the application of the primacy of existence (i.e., the recognition that the objects of consciousness do not depend on or conform to conscious activity; cf. the addage “wishing doesn’t make it so”) to all spheres of knowledge, evaluation, and judgment, including moral choices. Subjectivism is the result of granting metaphysical pirmacy, either implicitly or explicitly, to the subject of consciousness over its objects – e.g., the universe is a product of an act of will, wishing makes it so, reality conforms to preferences or commands, praying to invisible magic beings can alter history, supernatural beings can perform miracles, etc. An objective morality would need to be a morality based explicitly and uncompromisingly on facts relevant to man’s nature and his need for values, and that is precisely what I am affirming and endorsing in answer to the question “Where did morality come from?”

It’s even worse to dismiss a conception of morality informed by facts relevant to man’s need for values as “subjective” and then claim that morality finds its source in the will of a supernatural consciousness. You can’t get any more subjective than that!

It has always occurred to me that, if an individual were authentically interested in the nature of morality, its metaphysical basis, and the reasons why man needs it, he would be open to considering Objectivism’s unique contributions to this most important area of inquiry. At the very least, he would be eager to explore questions about what morality is and why it is important.

But apologists are clearly more concerned about validating the relevance of their theistic commitments and using questions about the nature and basis of morality as a means of propping up their religious pronouncements than they are about moral questions as such. This can be observed in the ways in which apologists react to fact-based analyses of moral theory and treat specific arguments about morality’s nature.

Apologists are continually pre-occupied, to the point of an obsessive fixation, with the atheist-vs.-theist conflict and characterizing anything that is not expressly theistic as personally and deliberately hostile to a divine agency. We are all in “rebellion” against their god, so they assume, and any views one may hold that are incompatible with their theology must be the result of some open revolt against “the Lord.” The views that any particular atheist might happen to hold can never be allowed to be the product of a sincere quest for discovery and enlightenment, but rather a symptom of innate depravity.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

I removed the previous comment because of too many typos on my part. Here it is again with everything in it corrected, hopefully.


Thanks for another entry! Several parts of your post resonated with me. They include:

"... religious hope is an insidious blend of wishful fantasy and intellectual vacuity, a pretense that what one imagines is real against the backdrop of a determination to ignore the facts of reality staring one right in the face."

"And devotees of the latest fashions in theology and apologetics are prone to a blindness which keeps them from seeing the brute immorality of their entire worldview’s methodological paradigm: to elevate hope in the imaginary above what we can discover and validate about reality on an objective basis..."

"My own view is that morality comes from existence, not from non-existence, from what is real as opposed to what is not real..."

And of course, there was the topic of self-sacrifice.

(That particular part brought to mind a slightly off-topic beef I have with our national media's habit of describing members of our military as having "sacrificed" -- as if these brave men and women aren't fighting for their own values -- as if their own stakeholder position is secondary to serving others.)

But I suppose that discussion is for another day.

Thanks again!


Unknown said...

Hello Dawson and Ydemoc

Thanks for yet another thoughtful blog entry. Religious apologists do love their moral "argument" and indeed browbeat those who express doubt or outright disbelief down and off discussion forums.

When Rand wrote that the first question regarding morality wasn't what moral code to adopt but rather why does Man need values she may have been thinking in context of what she explained in the intro to her "Objectvist Ethics" essay.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it
conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to
achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but
the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness”
is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us
whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us
what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such

The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in
order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with
one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and
(b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism
enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).
For a view of the nature of altruism, its consequences and the enormity of
the moral corruption it perpetrates, I shall refer you to Atlas Shrugged—or to
any of today’s newspaper headlines. What concerns us here is altruism’s
default in the field of ethical theory.

There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one
“package-deal”: (1) What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of
values? Altruism substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of
defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good,
and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an
action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is
anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque
double standards, the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have
characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history,
under all the variants of the altruist ethics.

My thinking along those lines accepts that I am my own sanction so my concern with my interests motivates me to identify my values. It's not automatic, so I have to think about what they are and how I'll go about gaining and keeping my values.