Science Shedding Light on Morality

Dec 24, 2012

Discussion by: astrum
In WWII, Russian scientists sacrificed themselves so that millions could live. During the siege of Leningrad, September 1941 – January 1944, a seedbank was protected by a group of diligent and selfless scientists. A seedbank contains specimens that may be extinct, varieties of extant plants that may hold resistances to certain pests or pesticides, and it basically serves as a type of gene bank. Sadly, many of the scientists who guarded this invaluable treasure starved to death to ensure that it survived. After the war, the seedbank of Leningrad was used to replenished 75% of the crops in Russia, saving millions of lives.

Many people in the world think that if science is left unchecked by religion that societies would fall apart from a lack morals and ethics. Clearly this is not the case, as the example above illustrates. What other cases are there that bolster the position that science can shed light on issues of morality, caring for those in need, what is right and wrong, etc.?

44 comments on “Science Shedding Light on Morality

  • From the title I expected this to be something different and at least to me more interesting, addressing the question of what science can say about morality and how/why humans make moral decisions. Examples of people doing this kind of work include Sam Harris and Marc Hauser.

    Instead, you seem to be talking about examples of scientists behaving morally. To me that is extremely boring. Not because I find it surprising but because it is so obviously not surprising. Scientists and atheists include some very moral people as well as some very immoral people just like Artists and theists or just about any other random group of humans you want to pick. The only people who believe otherwise are those that harbor prejudice against some group. 

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  • Hi Red Dog.  I know exactly what you mean and I have been doing a lot of thinking about this lately especially after watching the debate on morality between William Lane-Craig and Sam Harris – a debate that Lane Craig won hands down.  I was not pleased about this especially as atheists debaters seem to be running scared of Lane Craig now.
    I actually think I have come up with the answer to this.  I have in fact developed a theory, which of course is much to long to be posted on this comment page.

    I think it is important that atheists get a grip of this issue because it is an absolutely immense one.  I found that direct scientific investigation doesn’t get you very far, or at least not very quickly.  The answer is combining a variety of disciplines starting with evolution game theory, then anthropology, ethology and human social history.

    The starting point however is the realisation that.  Good and Evil exist, but they do not exist anywhere outside of the human species.  No good or bad animals, no good or bad plants or trees, no good or bad mountains nor planets not stars nor galaxies.  There is no empirical evidence to support the theist concept that good and bad existed before man even arrived on the planet earth.  This is the beginning of all wisdom.  I wish I could put my theory to interested and serious atheists but I don’t know how to do that.


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  • 3
    Reckless Monkey says:

    TrevW – Been listening to some of these debates, the things the Christians always come up with is that there is no objective morality.  I been wondering how to handle this with Christians responses in debates have satisfied me but not knocked the wind out of the Christian debaters who avoid at all costs actually owning up to things in the bible. 

    My current stance is that its a bloodly good thing there is no objective good or evil, and refer back to what they are doing trying to impose what they cannot know on the rest of us.  Even if there were a god given objective morality, they have no more access to it than the secular world (in fact it slows their acceptance of morality), and the evidence in the bible, koran etc. shows that if what they are claiming is true then what god calls good is in fact evil.  By their own definition they are in fact worshipping someone who has more in common with a modern view of satan.

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  • 4
    Cairsley says:

    Astrum, I was moved by your account of the heroic efforts of that group of Russian scientists who safeguarded that vitally important seedbank during the Second World War. I assume the scientists were not religious – they probably were not, having grown up in an officially atheistic country as it was then – so they are a good example of nonreligious people acting selflessly for a greater good. Such examples are important, both because they are inspiring and because they are concrete facts and as such are much harder than mere ideas are for religious advocates to counter, dismiss or ignore. That religionless people are at least as moral as religious people in the way they live is an empirical fact, and one has to be incapable of seeing reality (i.e. deluded in some way) if one is honestly to deny it.

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  • Interesting
    topic. I can personally guarantee that society will not fall apart morally or
    ethically if there is no religion supervisor. On the contrary, I think that it is
    better state organization where religion is an ephemeral phenomenon, or it is
    not present at all. I have lived in socialistic society for 20 years. Churches have existed, but nobody went to them
    because of the prevailing science, and religion was considered something
    backward. Now, slightly more than 20 years I live in a capitalist system that has
    occurred after change of state politics and society.
    capitalist system has brought corruption, tremendous decline of moral values​​, and established the church as some sort of moral vertical, because the
    politics needed the body of church in the fight for votes and spread of
    nationalism and capital. Church is united with politics (nationalism), and they
    stick to each other like two criminals, or as the Mafia. In socialism there was
    no concern for religion. Churches have existed, and those who were brought up
    in a religious spirit (old generation) freely went to church. Socialism has
    provided a secular political framework, religious organizations were left to
    look after themselves, so without financial aid.In such a framework, it was more moral freedom. Today religious organizations in Croatia are paid by the state, this money they get through tax, by depriving it to all citizens. Because of that kind of politics, catholic church believes that it has a legitimate right to impose their superstitions throughout society. They get rich at the expense of those who believe, but also at the expense of all the atheists and those who have a different religion believes, because they receive money from the taxes of ALL citizens regardless of religion.I think that societies do not fall apart from lack of religion, they fall apart out of wrong social politics, imposed religion, and capital (distribution of wealth).


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  • 6
    Nodhimmi says:

    Many more examples of irreligious self-sacrifice from those evil atheists- Chernobyl workers going to their deaths for the greater good, similarly those crew of the nuclear sub who volunteered to repair a reactor primary cooling system leak…

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  • 7
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    Thank you. I did not know about this interesting episode history. I did expect something along the lines of Sam Harris’ work, such as here:

    Examples of atheist heroism and morality are endless. Everyday I do good things and have never believed in gods. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does not give to any religiously affiliated institution.

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  • 8
    sandeepn81 says:

    It is generally observed that scientists and intellectuals are among the most moral and rational people across the world.
    I suspect morality has got some direct relation to intelligence, and naturally more intelligent people tend to be more moral and rational. 
    I think people are inherently good, and for atheists, the removal of superstitions and demands from religious beliefs to act illogically, will only unleash the inherent goodness with more vigor and frees them to act more morally. Also there is a possibility that some atheists are conscious that they should not act immorally just because they are not religious.
    In any case, what ever may be the reason behind it, I instinctly feel more confident in a scientist than in any priest or mulla.

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  • These were Scientists giving their life and not Science, as they were people, we can no more judge if they would have given their lives any less readily if they were road sweepers rather than Scientists.

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  • @TrevW, could you please post the link where Lane Craig “clearly” won a debate against Sam Harris? The videos on YouTube on the debate between the two, I can see Sam wiping the floor with the slimy, immoral & illogical dickweed that is Lane Craig.

    This sums up the debate for me,…

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  • 11
    QuestioningKat says:

    the things the Christians always come up with is that there is no objective morality.

    Christians complain that atheist have no objective morality and this is not so. They’ve created a false dichotomy – either objective or subjective, right or wrong. We have INNATE morality in which we either understand naturally or have learned to deal with more productively as a result of understanding human psychology. This INNATE morality can be understood  because we humans have the “power” of observation and understand cause and effect within personal relationships and interactions. We know that being kind, fair, and cooperative are all qualities that are socially beneficial.  Being mean, unjust, and uncooperative are NOT WRONG or sinful, but it will get you results that cause unrest, conflict with others, maybe even high blood pressure. You can be selfish if you like, but our innate sense of fairness will be alerted. Even other animals have this sense and will respond.

    The Christian concept of “what you sow, you reap” is generally correct. Go ahead and insult someone and see how they respond. Most likely they will take a “shot” back at you.  It usually takes someone with great social skills, intelligence, and tact to respond in a way that turns the situation around and eases any tension. So much for turning the other cheek. Most people don’t want to be bullied so they do something which usually equates with an eye for an eye. The more skilled way is to not turn the other cheek, but play “bad ping pong.” In the simplest way, someone takes a shot at you and rather than let the ball hit you, you hit it away – not towards the person, otherwise they could then slam you again. Instead hit it out so that the “ball” /confrontation is no longer in play. A highly skilled person, hits the ball it so that hits the ceiling, then bounces on the floor and lands in someone’s beer causing people to laugh and totally end the confrontation in a positive way, leaving both people feeling good. Long ago, I recall hearing a story about one of the Gabor sisters being robbed at gun point. I can’t recall exactly what ditsy move she made or said, but the gunman started laughing and then left her alone. To attack would likely get you shot. If you gave your wallet, you’d likely live. Plead that you lost your job or have a situation in which you really can’t give money and MAYBE you will keep both. Pull out a bill and let it fly away and maybe the gunman will chase it while you run the opposite direction. There are lots of choices. Each has different results. No distinct rules here.

    Morality cannot be defined as rules because there is likely an exception. “Thou shalt not kill.” People kill for food; people kill to defend themselves, people kill thousands of ants in their kitchen alone. Having lines in which to color life is demanded by many. They are unable to create on their own and are dependent upon others to set the stage in which they play. To conceive of an idea and then gain the technical skill and ability in which to observe, draw and create their own drawing on a page is tremendously more difficult and takes decades of study to do it really well. To play “bad ping pong” to a level in which it brings two people out of conflict into joyous resolution is extremely challenging. Think of your relationships with family member and other people. It’s easier to let things be than go through the sticky mess of fixing things and maybe compromise when you know it was never your fault.

    Yet, there are those that like having parameters and limitations. Without them, they stare at the blank canvas and get frustrated and maybe even get mad at the person (they perceive) that gave them the blank canvas. They will demand step-by-step procedures of what to do. These people will always exist. They are all of us to some extent in certain aspects of our lives. To label this need as GOOD or BAD or sheepish is really pointing the finger and not seeing our own dependence or need to conform to certain standards and situations (in nonreligious areas.) Some people facing the blank canvas without any parameters or any skill brazenly created something horrendous that they demand is art. It’s these “out-of control” people that the religious want to wrangle in and demand some decorum from them. In turn, they hand them a coloring book instead of giving them drawing lessons. They provide the fish rather than teach them to fish. The religious break their own rules because they themselves are not masters of their own lives and have no fishing skills.

    So what’s my point of this long rambling on. We have an INNATE sense of what is beneficial and what is not. Instead of demanding conformity to rules that have no awareness and do not take into account innate human psychology, we need to teach people how to respond to these situations when they arise. We need to first fully understand the situation in realistic terms. Simplifying it down to don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t go here…is a lazy approach. To give free reign is arguably also a lazy approach. People need to be taught skills, and this takes lot of effort, time, trial and error, creating new approaches, and seeing the other person as an equal and not evil.

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  • 12
    Red Dog says:

    ” The answer is combining a variety of disciplines starting with evolution game theory, then anthropology, ethology and human social history.”

    Sorry, I didn’t reply earlier.  I agree absolutely. In fact, to me the scientific study of ethics is one of the most interesting areas for new research.  First, because as you said it needs to combine so many diverse and wide ranging areas and second because its one of the last bastions where religious people (and unfortunately many scientific people as well) claim that “science can’t provide the answer” and that we must look to religion or philosophy alone.  

    I would quibble just a bit with your statement that “direct scientific investigation doesn’t get you very far”, to me combining all these disciplines is exactly what a good scientist does, but I do agree no one (including Harris so far) has made great progress yet, again another reason I find it so interesting, there is so much room for progress.  

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  • 13
    Red Dog says:

    Saying “we have an innate sense” is no more convincing than the theists who say that they “have an innate sense” that God must exist. Why is your innate sense somehow more valuable than theirs? When theists say that atheists have no objective morality I think they are right because I don’t think at this time ANYONE has an objective morality. What the theists are doing is their standard trick when a scientific question is unanswered, they say “Aha God did it!” and think that provides some kind of actual explanation. 

    IMO morality is just one of those questions that so far we don’t have much good science on. But that is starting to change. Harris made a good start by just making the case that morality is a legitimate topic for science. People like Hauser in his book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong have done a great job of collecting some of the diverse cognitive science and anthropological research on the topic. 

    But to just say we don’t need more scientific research because we can just trust our intuitions (which seems to me the point of your comment) is very unscientific. I share your intuition that when we do understand morality, many of our intuitions about how being good can be its own reward will turn out to be validated by psychological research. But at the same time I’m not going to assume that such must be the case. In the past many common sense ideas and intuitions about how the world work turned out to be wrong when examined scientifically. The same may happen once we understand morality better.

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  • 14
    blitz442 says:

    “a debate that Lane Craig won hands down…”

    Craig has come across as the more effective debater in several debates with atheists; IMHO that he wiped the floor with an inexperienced, nervous and at times incoherent Larry Krauss*.  In that debate, Krauss needed to show 1) how Craig plays upon our common sense notions of things like time and causation to arrive at conclusions that are not actually backed by science, and 2) do it in English.  I feel that Krauss was not successful in this and was not able to leverage his considerably superior knowledge of physics and cosmology. 

    But this debate with Sam Harris, I think that Harris was far more effective than Craig.  In each and every debate, Craig loves to set the parameters of the argument at the outset and thereby put his opponent on the defensive.  Harris refused to be bullied with these tactics and instead asked whether it is possible, under “Divine command theory”, to pronounce any authentic divine command from Yahweh as immoral.  Craig cannot answer in the affirmative, so Harris is then free to list some morally excreble acts (such as genocide) that have apparently been sanctioned by God and asks Craig to defend them.  Craig is then left with the incredibly weak defense that what may seem immoral and evil to us is in fact moral according to God.  Harris counters with his “intellectual tennis without the net” comment, which was a very effective way of pointing out the blatant inconsistency in Craig’s position.  That is, Craig and his ilk are quick to praise certain acts of God as unquestionably moral, which implies that humans have some capacity for independently determing whether something is right or wrong, but then when confronted with acts that have every appearance of being evil, they suddenly claim that our moral sensibilities are extremely unreliable.   Harris wins the debate because he successfully identifies the fatal weakness in Divine Command theory, presses the point, and delivers the point in a way that is understandable to all but the slowest or most dogmatic audience members. 

    *If this seems to be harsh assessment of Krauss, then it is probably due to the fact that it was completely avoidable.  Craig’s debating style and indeed his exact positions are well-known now, and there is a long list of atheists and scientists who have underestimated Craig in debates and have suffered the consequences.  There was simply no reason for Krauss to have come across as such a sputtering mess at times.  Whatever the weaknesses of Craig’s positions, it should be clear by now that merely having the facts on your side is not enough to prevail in the conditions of a formal debate against a practiced, polished and cunning opponent.  For a good summary of debates b/t Craig and atheists, see….  I don’t agree with the author’s contention that Craig has won ALL of his debates, but I do agree that he has been the more effective debator in many, especially his earlier ones.

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  • 15
    sdelsolray says:

    You assume the scientists who starved to death we not religious and were “unchecked” by religious tenets, whatever those tenets may have been.  Please provide evidence supporting these assumptions.

    But as to your ultimate point, I find no evidence that any religion has a copyright, trademark or patent on moral or altruistic behavior.  Those that claim otherwise have no evidence supporting such claim.  None whatsoever.

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  • 16
    Simon Tuffen says:


    I don’t think your example of the Russian scientists is really a case of science shedding light on morality. It is an example of a particular group of scientists displaying a type of moral behaviour that any group of humans might be capable of.

    However, science can shed light on morality, but only if it is first clearly defined what we mean by morality. Sam Harris gave a very clear account of this premise in his book The Moral Landscape. The only problem with his book is that it is far longer than necessary, which somewhat diluted the power of his argument; the premise is very simple, and could have been set out in just 1 or 2 chapters.

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  • I’m not sure if those scientists were non-religious. The communist revolution started in 1917. Before that the country was deeply religious and I do not think that disappeared overnight. They were remarkeble people anyway.

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  • 18
    Red Dog says:

    I agree about The Moral Landscape. It was good in that it made a case that many people, even many scientists haven’t accepted yet, that science can say interesting things about morality. The problem was, once he made that case, he never really did any actual science. His big idea was to wait for the neuro-psychology people to figure it out, which I think is incredibly narrow minded. Its like saying that Linguistics should only be about analyzing grammars or constructing neural net models that can recognize language. Morals, like language, requires a broad range of overlapping disciplines. Neuropsychology is important to be sure but so are anthropology, game theory, evolutionary biology, and cognitive psychology as well.

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  • 19
    Red Dog says:

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novels document that time in history pretty well, even though as a reactionary theist he had his own agenda, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky before him he usually does a great job of suppressing his particular views and creating rich stories with different viewpoints represented fairly. From what I recall from books like The First Circle, most of the Russian scientists were atheists, of course they would all SAY they were atheists because the potential penalty for saying otherwise was exile or death.  But even if we grant that they were atheists I think if you look at the psychology of the people of Russia at that time, most of them weren’t fighting for world revolution or the betterment of mankind but because they loved their country and as much as they hated Stalin they hated being invaded even more.

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  • 20
    canadian_right says:

    I thought it was common knowledge that atheists are generally much more moral than the religious. A religious person with good morals has to at least stop and think long enough to shed the worst of their theology to be what the modern world thinks of as a good person. The atheist gets to start without ideas like: killing people is ok for a long list of crimes that harm no one, killing people is ok if they stop believing fairy tales, killing children is ok if they talk back, killing little girls is ok if they try to get an education, and well, you get the picture.
    I find that most people who are atheists are also rational, thoughtful people. It is rare for rational thought to lead to immoral acts.
    As for “objective” morality, there are a number of competing “objective” moral philosophies: objectivism uutilitarianism, and Sam Harris’s more nebulous “globally maximize human happiness”, for starters. Any of these are more objective than “do what this really old book says that is full of contradictions and terrible examples of heinous, immoral acts.”

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  • 21
    Dan1993 says:

    Hi guys, 

    I believe humans do have innate morality, or at the least psychological processes and evolutionary history that allow us to develop moral and ethical standards without biblical indoctrination and guidance from an omnipresent and supreme being, and I think there is sufficient scientific evidence to support this idea. 

    Hominids have a history of altruistic behaviour throughout evolution. For example, there is fossil evidence to suggest that Homo erectus (a species of the Homo genus that also used tools and fire, and had significantly larger brain than the species of other genera) cared for the elderly and the sick, and possibly showed signs of communal or cooperative behaviour. This behaviour corresponds with the rapid evolution in brain size and the beginning of our evolution into self-aware higher sapiens. Homo habilis (2.4 – 1.4 million years ago) had a brain size of roughly 700-800 grams and as far as we know didn’t show significant signs of altruism, Homo erectus (1.89 million years – 140 000 years ago) had a brain size of 900-1100 grams and showed signs of altruistic behaviour, and todays self-aware and conscious humans have a brain size of 1300-1400 grams. Therefore, it may be reasonable to say that perhaps with physical evolution (especially of the brain) came the evolution of innate altruism and developed into what we may call moral standards or behaviour today. Just a thought. 

    Also, the human brain is hard-wired to evaluate intentionality in moral dilemmas. Humans have the ability to detect whether harm inflicted on another person is intentional or accidental, and this could suggest that morality or the thought processes for morality are a natural, innate psychological response. Read more here:

    An excerpt from the article: 

    The ability to recognize and respond emotionally to the intentional infliction of harm is a critical source of morality that is universal across cultures, researchers believe. “It is part of humans’ evolutionary heritage,” Decety said. “The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped our brains to be sensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice.”    Thanks, 


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  • 22
    Col Nelson says:

    I have just signed up to this site and have enjoyed this discussion on morality. I am a secular humanist and agree that our morality should be based in what is innate to our human nature. This is not an easy task but is ongoingly possible because we have an innate rationality and cognitive capabilities that help us gather information etc and put it together as someone has already indicated.

    For me, and a number of people have already commented, the use of a range of disciplines helps to confirm and illustrate that moral actions are and have always been an important part of simply being human. This rational approach to determining what is ‘good’ or ethical from nature has a long history that predates many of the world’s influential religions. The existence of this history is part of the proof that shows we do not need a ‘revealed’ morality to live dignified and moral lives and that we do not start life as a blank or immorally skewed slate that needs educating and fixing by an otherworldly being.

    It would be great to see a modern, scholarly and reasonably easy to read presentation of some of the great rationalist literature that sought to understand morality in nature rather than in ‘revelation’. For example, I love to read Cicero who provides a really good understanding of such views current in his day and age, arguments that look very familiar to those of today. A work on humanist ethics that incorporates this type of information as well as that from modern findings would be a great service to helping us not only be moral in all our actions but also to argue with those who feel the need for religious restrictions rather than discover the fresh air of doing the hard yards to use our innate abilities to discover and expand our innate human morality.

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  • 23
    QuestioningKat says:

    Hi, I am in no way saying that we do not need scientific research. In fact, scientific research is showing that we are wired (have an innate sense) of how to treat other people. (Maybe this would be a good topic- Do babies demonstrate a natural sense of right and wrong? )The oldest sibling may want to kill their younger sibling, but they know (innately) that this would be unacceptable. Most of us are wired to be social. Perhaps I have written my post in a way that seems a bit fluff to you, however much of our “morality” can be observed as small children. Even monkeys as shown in the video has a sense of fairness; this sense of “morality” does not come from an outside God, but is intrinsic to biology.

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  • Upon reading this discussion I have arrived a question that I was not aware of when composing this topic: Was the influence of science the key driving mechanism within the decision of these scientists saving the seedbank and not consuming it or releasing it for consumption to the public? If the answer is “no” then a plausible prediction would be: non-scientists would have arrived at the same conclusion – to harbor the seedbank for use in the future. But how would these non-scientists have been aware of the potential of the boxes and boxes of seeds in the present (1941) and future? I am not certain an answer to this can be generated with a high probability of accuracy.

    Therefore, I see it safe to abductively infer, (which is the most common form of scientific inference, see: Fitzhugh, K. (2010). “Evidence for evolution versus evidence for intelligent design: Parallel confusions”. Evol Biol 37: 68–92. DOI:10.1007/s11692-010-9088-1), that it was the scientific training that played in important role, (but not total), in their decisions through those long years. I do not view this as a mundane issue as some have described it here. I assert that this is a fundamental product of scientific training. Of course there will be variability within this population, but that variability will certainly not be a function of that scientific training. Indeed the well known mechanisms of evolution, (mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift), can more elegantly account for the variations. In closing I want to add that what may seem rudimentary to many of those here in this discussion, or in others, are profundities to those who do not frequent such sources of information as this website. And we, as scientists, must be aware of this and prepared to act upon it. Hence, this proposed discussion topic.

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  • 25
    Red Dog says:

     Your post didn’t seem like fluff to me at all, sorry if I gave that impression. I try to ignore fluff. I replied because I thought you were saying that morality could be easily defined by each individual intuiting their own sense of right and wrong. That’s not a fluffy idea. Lots of smart people believe it.  I just think its overly simplistic and I’m glad that we actually agree 🙂

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  • 26
    nick keighley says:

    I thought it was common knowledge that atheists are generally much more
    moral than the religious.

    not common knowledge to me- and I’m an atheist. Sounds like simple predjudice to me. “people like me are moral and people that aren’t like me aren’t”. Sounds like the old anthropologists Other.

     A religious person with good morals has to at
    least stop and think long enough to shed the worst of their theology to
    be what the modern world thinks of as a good person.

    sounds like complete nonsense. Which bits of theology were you thinking of?

    The atheist gets to
    start without ideas like: killing people is ok for a long list of
    crimes that harm no one, killing people is ok if they stop believing
    fairy tales, killing children is ok if they talk back, killing little
    girls is ok if they try to get an education, and well, you get the

    hardly C of E stuff this


    I find that most people who are atheists are also
    rational, thoughtful people.

    you haven’t met my antie joyce then?  🙂

    In my experience atheists are as equally bonkers as the rest of humanity.

    It is rare for rational thought to lead to
    immoral acts.

    it is rare for people who commit immoral acts to consider they are irrational. What *is* an immoral act?


     As for “objective” morality, there are a number
    of competing “objective” moral philosophies: objectivism
    uutilitarianism, and Sam Harris’s more nebulous “globally maximize human
    happiness”, for starters. Any of these are more objective than “do what
    this really old book says that is full of contradictions and terrible
    examples of heinous, immoral acts.”

    the Golden Rule seems like a good start.

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    Hey Guys
    Lets try and throw a little light on the subject.  Good and Evil, right or wrong does not exist anywhere in nature.  There are no good or bad animals,  Good or bad plants or trees, good or bad rocks,mountains, stars or galaxies.   The concept of Good and Evil only exists exclusively in the human race.  This simple arguement is the reason why theism tells us nothing as they believe that morality comes from God (and the devil) and so existed before humans.

    That being said, good and evil actually do exists as we all know.  This should lead us to conclude that it is based on something about the human species.  We are animals and we share alot with other animals so our morality must have an evolutionary basis.  We are however different from other animals in that we can progress rather than simply adapt due to our superintelligence and super-abilities.  What we call animal instinct in animals is really animal morality.  What we call morality in humans is therefore instinct plus.

    I have a whole theory on this which explains a great deal.  I have tried to start a thread on this but it does not seem to have appeared.  I am quite new to the site but I have been thinking about this idea for a long time.

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    Dear Professor Dawkins
    As a committed atheist, I would comment that your contribution to our cause has been invaluable as yourself and the other `four horsemen’ have brought the cause of rationality and reason back to the fore in light of the rising wave of fundamentalist theism now afflicting the world.  I have been watching your debates on You Tube and I saw the debates between yourself and others, and Sam Harris against the theist advocate William Lane-Craig.
    Please accept that the spirit of this letter is to assist the cause of reason science and atheism on the specific subject of morality.  it appears to me that this subject has been and still persists as a weakness in our ideological armoury.  I believe that Lane-Craig in a way has laid this weakness bare in a very public way and is now a figure of fear for many atheist debaters.
    Lane-Craig’s main contention is that theist morality is grounded firmly in the existence of God – who is the personification of goodness. To quote him exactly he says ” Consider first the question of objective moral values. If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? In particular, why think that human beings would have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being. This is what Dr. Harris calls “The Value Problem”.  He further implies that for the atheist, humans are just a purposeless collection of atoms and molecules dominated by `selfish genes’.
    In his debate with Sam Harris, Sam put forward the broad brushstrokes of an alternative based on his book `The Moral Landscape’ that `morality is objectively grounded in a proposition:  that ultimate evil is the most possible suffering of conscious beings in the universe and what is moral, is any movement away from that.
    Given the `abstract’ nature of this statement  it seems that Lane-Craig always gets the better of the debate by being the only one with a `concrete’ idea of where morality is grounded and how.  This is irrespective of the fact that theist morality is obviously inferior to what we would consider to be correct moral values in general.  It reminds me of the scenario that if their are 10 people in a debate but only one puts forward a positive argument: and this could be about anything – then that person will win the argument by default: irrespective of any disagreeable comments or voting.
    Sam Harris’s perspective of Neuro-science and the operation of the brain ultimately answering the questions about why we consider some things good and some bad I find unconvincing.  I do not say it is impossible or incorrect but It is like trying to understand the social behaviour of ants by dissecting an ant’s brain. I feel that answers by going down this road are a long way off.  The key reason being that for social animals, morality/instinct can only be understood in terms of social relations and interactions between individuals and groups .The key question in my view is that Morality is both an evolutionary and a social question for humans.
    You dedicate a whole chapter of `The God Delusion’ to this matter.  In the chapter entitled `The Good Book and the changing Moral Zeitgeist’, In which you correctly describe the rapid advance of human moral progress which mirrors scientific progress in recent centuries but in the end – page 308 you admit:
    “It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way.”
    I think the problem may be precisely that.  That in order to address this question scientifically, we have to combine the disciplines of the natural sciences particularly evolutionary biology, ethology and anthropology with social science and human social history.  This is precisely what I have done but admittedly only on a very superficial basis but yet I seem to have stumbled onto a consistent theory of morality. The theory is very simple and elegant with a simple formula, an E=MC2 if you will, (I say this only because it is simple and elegant not out of some delusions of grandeur).  This is merely a scientific theory deduced by logic.  I start with the following propositions.
    1  In the animal world, instinct and morality are one and the same thing and we should respect animal instinct in this regard.
    2  Given that we are in fact animals albeit with super-intelligence and super-ability our starting point has to be our evolved over millions of years natural state, our instincts.
    3  The concept of morality as opposed to instinct is therefore a human construct.
    4  Morality i e good and evil, therefore exists only within the human race as a species. (unless we find some even more advanced species in the universe).
    5  Because of our super-intelligence and super-ability we are able to make progress on all things, an ability absent in the animal kingdom.
    6  Science is the uncovering of truth about the world and the universe.
    7  The moral zeitgeist that you describe illustrates the `uncovering’ of the truth of our evolved morality and nature by way of the struggles and development of human history and now in the modern world broadly corresponds to the 14 atheist commandments that you superficially sketched out in your book.
    In the end. Morality belongs to us as humans and our present moral truths have been `uncovered’ rather than evolved as `true evolution is too slow a process to explain the moral changes that have taken place in world history since the time of Christ until the present’ – and this process continues right up to this very day.
    Either way it is in our hands, the grounding for morality is nowhere other than in the human race as a species.  This is a fact that we should be proud of and celebrate our gradual but measurable moral progress.  We should however understand that if our morality lags too far behind our scientific progress and ability this would almost inevitably cause us to destroy ourselves.
    As we concretely look at the reality of actually existing theocracy in the world today. we are able to deduce that we are observing moral regress in these cases not progress.  Whether this be nuclear armed Iranian Mullahs or Pakistani Jihadists (who love death more than we love life) or Nuclear armed US creationists who look forward to the day of judgement and their own rapture and commonly speak of the “clash of civilizations” – this is all the more reason for us to steadfastly confront the spread of theistic ideas as much as we can –  as it is possible that the very future of our species could ultimately depend on it.

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  • I am a bit confused by some of what, I think, are the points you feel are most important to your position. Your #1 asserts that within the world of animals morality and instincts are the same. In #2 you assert humans are animals. Your #3 asserts that morality opposed to instinct is a human construct. #1 does not entail #3.

    I am always wary to read humans described, as you described them further, as possessing “super” abilities, because that statement entails that every other animal possess abilities that are inferior to ours. (see the antonyms of the word super). We certainly have acquired a degree of complexity that is not evinced in any other extant animal behavioral system. (Please note the key word in the previous sentence: behavioral). But I think that is as descriptive we can, with a high degree of reliable inference, appraise “human condition” with respect to other animals.

    If we accept that this behavioral complexity has yielded, overall, beneficial results, (see the development of science from religion), then a case can be made for further increasing our behavioral complexity, or at least a better assessment of how the mechanisms of the complexity have yielded greater gains through time.

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  • Astrum
    If you want to call it behavioural system rather than super-intelligence and super-ability in comparison to animals then that’s fine.  I would rather not because it makes it sound more complicated than it is.
    Yes we are animals.  In fact Primates – but we have evolved to be qualitatively superior in terms of intelligence and ability to all animals.  This much is obvious if we look at today’s world to see how much social and scientific progress the human race has made in a matter of two centuries.  This is to an astronomical level beyond the capacity of any other living thing on this planet.
    The terminology “instinct” or “morality” could be confusing.  I was simply making the point that we use the word morality exclusively with regards to human beings not animals.  The point I was making is that in my view our morality is based on our naturally evolved instinct but it is being `uncovered’ in line with our very rapid progress as a species.  I say uncovered because evolution cannot explain our “changing moral Zeitgeist” (as Richard Dawkins puts it) in that over a couple of hundred years – slavery has gone from being the norm to now be unacceptable.  Racism and woman’s equality have only been recognised as immoral in the 20th Century.  My point is that this cannot be as a result of evolution.

    The point is if Morality which we all recognise does not come from God where does it come from?

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  • Morality is defined as a system of conduct to distinguish between right and wrong. 

    Therefor right and wrong is relative the group that creates it. We have observed fluctuations within human morality, (just investigate the ways in which women, children, and homosexuals were regarded across cultures and across time). There is no one system of morals on the Earth for all humans across space and time – but there does exist a system. 

    We humans have our various versions of this system of conduct to distinguish between right and wrong; chimpanzees have their own; bonobos have one too. I suggest investigating their systems to gain a better idea of how ours is just as natural as theirs.

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  • 32
    Red Dog says:

     So, let me attempt to paraphrase your argument:  “Some time scientists take advantage of their knowledge and it influences them to do things that are beneficial to humanity in general, and this seed thing is such an example”  

    Seems pretty mundane to me. Climate change, the ozone hole, banning above ground nuclear tests, attempting to ban chemical and biological warfare, clean air and water standards,… All examples that were heavily influenced by scientists and by scientific knowledge and that any rational person would agree benefit humanity. Your arguments seems mundane to me because only someone with an extreme anti-science bias would disagree with it to begin with.

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  • I disagree with your semantics. Further, do not assume that everyone reading these posts is “rational”; so I find you appraisal of this environment in disagreement with my own. You also assume that only extremists would disagree with my assertions; here I will again take the opposite position. You have either forgotten or neglected the ignorant or open-minded – those people who may not have come into this discussion with a presupposition.

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  • 34
    intuitionella says:

    that is really a story of self sacrifice for the good of the people, something that human beings have the capacity for, each human being has the capacity to do good or to do harm, something that is shared universally and when people feel strongly enough about a cause then it will usually lead to acts of altruism like this and many other examples that happen all around the world every day.

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  • 35
    RejectHumanStupidity says:

    Morality is a social/emotional concept.

    Therefor, so long as there are emotions and society; there would theoretically be “morality”

    But ultimately, the collective construct that would be the framework for modern morality would be in “Art”
    —- As artistic expression and appreciation would serve to be a representation of individual feelings: as art serves as the container in which emotions are conveyed between individuals.

    That, because I think that complex formulations of empathy should accurately define “morality”

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  • 36
    Cairsley says:

    Fair enough, Ridelo. As I said, I “assumed” the scientists were nonreligious, as Astrum seemed to have assumed this in the original posting. But Jumped Up Chimpanzee’s words above in response the question whether it was *science* shedding light on morality or not can be used in this regard too: “It is an example of a particular group of scientists displaying a type of moral behaviour that any group of humans might be capable of.”

    They were indeed remarkable people!

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  • 37
    Red Dog says:

     So just to summarize: I think this whole discussion was fairly mundane because only someone irrational or uneducated would disagree with the argument you are making in the first place. You don’t seem to dispute that but you counter by essentially saying there are a lot more uneducated and irrational people in the world and on this site then I realize.

    That may be true but my reply is: do we really want to focus our discussions on the uneducated and irrational or would we rather have substantive discussions about actual scientific and philosophical issues? It seems to me a total waste of time to waste comments on endlessly making the same lame jokes about religion and constantly saying how cool we atheists and Dawkins are and how stupid the religious people are. Its not that I disagree with most of those comments I just find them boring and pointless. But if we took a vote, more people here would probably agree with you.

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  • Astrum
    You say that
    “Morality is defined as a system of conduct to distinguish between right and wrong.  Therefore right and wrong is relative to the group that creates it. We have observed fluctuations within human morality, (just investigate the ways in which women, children, and homosexuals were regarded across cultures and across time). There is no one system of morals on the Earth for all humans across space and time – but there does exist a system. “

    I think we are half way there based on these comments.  The only problem is it does not tell the whole story.  Lets take the period from the birth of Christianity to the present day, approximately 2000 years.  This is not enough time for evolution to take place in a Darwinian sense but it would appear that what is generally accepted as morally valid has changed as though it were a Darwinian process. We should note that the morality/instinct of Chimpanzees has not changed one bit. Our morality has not just changed it has progressed.
    Many of the things that we take for granted today have in fact been `uncovered’ This is why I emphasis this word uncovered, as opposed to evolved and this has been done by way of struggle and reason. Slavery for example is wrong today as it has always been wrong (even in ancient Rome). Racism is wrong but this moral understanding was only uncovered in the 20th Century (through struggle) although it has always been wrong.  Homophobia is wrong but the battle still rages on this front (especially with the theists) but need I say, it has always been wrong.  Likewise the equality of women which still rages in many parts of the theist world – I could go on.”

    Yes I would agree that morality is changing in so far as it is being `uncovered’ in the same way that science is uncovering greater knowledge about the universe and everything at an astronomical rate.  As I said earlier, the issue of difference between us and animals is that we are able to progress not just adapt.
    I further disagree with `Reject Human Stupidity’ that morality is a social emotional concept.
    No, it is an evolutionarily derived scientific and social concept which has been determined by our need to survive and prosper.  We only start talking about emotions because we are talking about ourselves.  Art is the physical expression of emotion and that is about where it ends.

    No.  To explain morality, the existence of Good and Evil and I think the fact that they do exist in the real world and are therefore objective we have to look at ourselves as a species to find the answers.

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  • 39
    RejectHumanStupidity says:

    @rdfrs-a634923a6239afafb633d9be10749d7b:disqus  -> Morality is a byproduct of evolution, and it is measured BY science. Because it is the [Assigned emotional value] to an [Idea] +And+ is [Measured by peers] or [A Theory of mind render/Prediction] of [potential peer reactions]
    —> So it is a Social and emotional construct.

    And yes: One can assign themselves as the [Peer in question] thus being ones own [“judge”]

    –“Art is the physical expression of emotion”Yes, it is. That’s the point.The expression of emotion aids in the social development of empathy and sympathy.A means of language to demonstrate an emotional state.

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  • Dear Reject Human Stupidity

    I think it would be better for all concerned if you tried to speak in English.  These pluses minuses and brackets don’t mean anything to anybody.  I agree with the first five words of your last post.

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  • Dear Questioning Kat
    Thanks for your long contribution I do not disagree with what you say in terms of your description.  I am however sceptical about your identification of where human morality originates.  You say.
    Christians complain that atheist have no objective morality and this is not so. They’ve created a false dichotomy – either objective or subjective, right or wrong. We have INNATE morality in which we either understand naturally or have learned to deal with more productively as a result of understanding human psychology…. We know that being kind, fair, and cooperative are all qualities that are socially beneficial.  Being mean, unjust, and uncooperative are NOT WRONG or sinful, but it will get you results that cause unrest, conflict with others, maybe even high blood.
    You are obviously speaking on a very personal level here but we need to address the bigger picture.  When you say being mean unjust etc is not wrong how far do you take this?  There is murder, genocide, oppression, war and destruction that have to be taken into account when speaking of human morality.  I would disagree on this point as I think it is obvious that there are such things as good and evil which are objectively opposite poles.
    Red Dog
    I agree with you about my incorrect phrase “direct scientific investigation does not get you very far”  This was wrong and it contradicts the other points in the letter which you acknowledge.  I actually meant addressing this through a single discipline like neuro science, or anthropology would not get you very far.  Sorry.
    When you however say
    “When theists say that atheists have no objective morality I think they are right because I don’t think at this time ANYONE has an objective morality…”
    In your next post I have to strongly disagree.  This may I point out is the nub of the whole question.  I would argue that Human morality is objectively located in the human race as a species.  There are no good or bad animals, no good or bad plants, trees, mountains, stars. galaxies etc.  The concepts of good and evil are extremely real but purely human.
    Hi Blitz442
    The outcome of a debate is of course always a matter of opinion and I have not seen as many as you obviously.  But the debate you referred to involving Lane-Craig and Sam Harris was I though difficult for Sam.  When you describe this debate as an intellectual game of tennis that is fair enough but Sam only got away with it by avoiding the premises that Lane Craig raised – the objective basis for morality.  Just that fact alone was enough to put him in difficulties.  If only someone had an answer to this, then Lane Craig would be finished (even his website is steeped in 3 or 4 theistic arguments, this being one of them) as it is obvious that Atheistic morality is infinitely superior to Christianity.
    Well, I actually think that I might have that answer.

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  • 42
    Red Dog says:

    I think we may not actually disagree at all, its just that we may be using terminology in different ways. When I say something is objectively true, I mean two things:  1) There is some model or theory that can explain that something without regard to subjective truths i.e. not say “this is true for me but not for you”. So as an example, I think its true that Jimi Hendrix was a better guitar player than Eric Clapton, but I would never claim it as an objective truth because I’m not claiming that there are objective metrics I could use and that could convince other people of that truth 2) the said model or theory is very well established, to the point where serious scientists argue about the details but not the basic theory.  So objective truths for me include evolution, newtonian physics, etc.

    So getting back to morality, what we have in a lot of these comments are arguments between some people who think its only an emotional or subjective truth, similar to saying Hendrix over Clapton and others (which include you and me) who think that morality is something that can be studied scientifically.

    So far so good. Now the reason I said “I don’t think at this time ANYONE has an objective morality” is because while I think morality CAN be studied this way (it passes test one) I don’t think there is yet anything close to a consensus in the scientific community about how to do that and what the prevailing theory is (it fails test two).

    Harris for example, certainly would seem to agree with me, he spends a lot of effort justifying that science can study morality but then he never actually uses science to do that, he sort of throws up his hands and says “and now we have to wait for the neouropsych people to give us the answers”.  And while I certainly agree that people who use utilitarianism or consequentialism or even deontological ethics are more rational and more objective than theists, I won’t use the term objective unless and until there is the kind of consensus about ethics that we have in other mature scientific areas such as evolution and physics.

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  • Red dog
    I am glad that we are on the same page here.  Your first description of `objective’ is the way that I mean it.  When William Lane Craig said Objective moral values, he means moral values that are determined outside of the human race and exist elsewhere (in god).  Therefore, as he often says, if the Nazis had won world war two and exterminated or brainwashed everybody who did not agree with them, the Nazi Holocaust would still be wrong even if nobody on earth thought so.
    That is what I call objective.  This is the question that the atheists have difficulty answering dealing with all I have heard is the following.
    1        Nature and the universe does not care about rights and wrongs and neither does evolution, its is up to us to decide individually.
    2        Darwinian evolution is not something that we can emulate or base our       morality on. We have be based it on precisely the opposite (Richard    Dawkins) but I don’t know why.
    3        Morality must be based on the proposition that if we can imagine the   maximum suffering of `conscious beings in the universe, then any        move away from this is moral. There must be a scientific basis for our morals and we are looking into it.  (Harris)
    4        whether our morals are objective or not they are better than those of        theism
    Do you see the problem red dog?  utilitarianism etc and anything that is derived from philosophy also does not do it but just obscures the issue more.
    I think it is imperative that atheists and secularists come up with something better because this is 50 percent of the justification for theism and has been since the enlightenment.
    Basically what I am saying is that human morality is `objectively’ based not in some proposition or abstraction or philosophy, but in the actual existence of the human race as a species.  As I said in my last post there are no good or bad animals, no good or bad plants, trees, mountains, stars. galaxies.
    Now then, we are animals, advanced animals but animals none the less.  All animals have instincts.  So what is the difference between us and say chimpanzees one of our closest relatives.  Herein lies the answer or at least the beginnings of it.

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