I often get asked where I get my morals from, just because I don’t believe in a certain god or gods. I always find the question strange, since I tend to think we all (for the most part) ‘get’ our morals from the same place, using much the same method.
Culture For The Win?
In some respects, I think we get some of our morals and biases from our respective cultures. It’s why different cultures vary in what they find ‘moral’ behavior.
For example, I find cutting off a thief’s hand or executing people as part of our criminal justice system unethical, yet I can cross the border into the U.S and find the death penalty or I can hop on a plane and visit a country that thinks chopping off a thief’s hand is perfectly acceptable behavior. In some cultures, human sacrifices were given to the gods, and it was considered a great honor to give your life in such a way.
Ironically, in a way, religion is a culture being passed on through a book. I think if you’re trying to get your morals from an ancient religion and the culture that spawned it, you’re still deriving your ethics from an ancient civilization.
I think the question we need to ask ourselves is whether this is the best method?
Personally, I don’t think so.
Most of us have empathy and can mentally put ourselves in another person’s shoes. This is basically where the ‘golden rule’ (which predates Christianity and other mainstream religions) comes from.
For example, I can imagine what it would be like to have a possession stolen. I then realize I wouldn’t like that feeling and so decide not to inflict that feeling on another human being by stealing their things.
Of course, the golden rule isn’t perfect. There are things I might consider to be okay, that someone else wouldn’t like. If I’m into pain for pleasure, for example, not everyone is going to share my enthusiasm.
Coupled with the above two is moral reasoning.
Basically, it boils down to this:
Moral reasoning can be defined as being the process in which an individual tries to determine the difference between what is right and what is wrong in a personal situation by using logic. This is an important and often daily process that people use in an attempt to do the right thing. Every day for instance, people are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to lie in a given situation. People make this decision by reasoning the morality of the action and weighing that against its consequences.
It’s not a perfect process and it evolves along with our culture, but I think it’s far superior to an ethical system that doesn’t (or isn’t supposed to) change, such as religion.
We (most of us) can weigh the consequences vs. benefits of our actions and figure out if it’s worth it. We can use our reasoning and logic instead of rigid dogmatic beliefs.
In fact, most religious people use these methods. Even religion is forced to evolve or die according to our cultures and the moral reasoning of the time. As more information becomes available, we are forced as a society to reevaluate our actions.
If something isn’t eternal, what point is there?
I don’t understand why something must be permanent in order to have meaning.
If I do a good deed, it matters now. Our happiness matters now. It doesn’t have to matter 3 billion years from now to have meaning now.
Whether there is a heaven or a hell, it isn’t required for us to give meaning to our lives and it certainly isn’t needed for constructing an ethical framework of behavior. Even many religious people will acknowledge that atheists are perfectly capable of acting ethically, yet they don’t believe in god(s).
But…without god telling us rape and murder are bad, what makes it so?
We do. Human beings can figure it out using our own reasoning and empathy.
What’s more scary is the thought that for some, ancient literature is the only thing keeping them from thinking murder and rape are great ideas.
If you can’t think of any other reason that rape and murder is wrong, you might want to seek help.
So if you’re an atheist, where do you derive your morals or ethics from? And if you’re religious, what do you think about morals and ethics in general?
As always, thanks for reading!