Morality

A long time ago, when humans first started communicating with one another in a structured and organized fashion, these first humans took it upon themselves to pass along their observations about what they believed to be the origin of and purpose of the lives they lived. In conveying to one another ideas about how this universe works, some humans were unsatisfied with a lack of knowledge about the world they knew of, and so, being the only creatures on the planet in possession of the power of imagination, they postulated that magical beings created the world they recognized, and did so in magical ways — ways we did not need to understand, in order to benefit from.

Their world was limited to the scope of what they could see — the land, and ocean at its edges til the horizon — so they assumed that the whole of existence was a lump of land floating in an endless ocean that existed as a vast disc, in some cases held up on back of a giant space turtle (which in turn rested on another turtle, which in turn rested on another — “turtles all the way down”). The sun was assumed to be any number of things from a flaming chariot to a goddess flying through the air and watching humanity. Plants and animals were created ex nihilo — out of nothing — because no other explanation of their existence could be gleaned. The weather betrayed the mood of the gods, and blood sacrifices were occasionally used to appease them.

As time marched on, these ideas evolved and changed with the times, as most ideas are wont to do. What was once a game of telephone, with myths passed through oral tradition, became written tradition with the invention of writing. These writings were corrupted by means of translation and retranslation, each time being changed slightly by the human doing the transcription and translation. Eventually we humans developed polytheism, with pantheons of gods responsible for every aspect of daily living; and monotheism, with all events being governed by one deity. Both branches of theology have become refined over the ages to cover every line of inquiry that humans have had — from how this universe began, humans’ “special place” and “purpose”, how best to navigate the world so as not to die from poisoning or diseases, how to ensure your tribe has the most advantages over other tribes, et cetera.

These gods became law-givers, codifying and deifying the moral edicts passed down by those in power, lending extra credence to those laws that the powerful felt to be necessary to enact. Some of the laws were objectively good for humankind, e.g. thou shalt not murder, but some were merely built to perpetuate the religious stranglehold on the populace. Humans are naturally disinclined to such objectively bad activities through long millenia of evolution as we evolved to become social animals dependent on one another to live happy, comfortable lives. Some people have chemical imbalances in their brains, or were taught to supercede their natural moral compunctions against hurtful actions to other human beings, and thus violate these laws — and they are subsequently punished for undermining the fabric of society, removed to jails or by death penalty in order to prevent them from harming society further.

At a certain point, science came along. Some humans were unsatisfied with the pat answers that were delivered with surety despite, oftentimes, being in direct contravention to visible and verifiable evidence. So, they decided “let’s build a test to verify some aspect of reality, and perform that test and see what observations we can make from it.” Thus was born the first experiment. And from this experiment came the first scientifically verified fact about reality.

As scientific experimentation identified issues with the proposed epistemologies of the religions of the time, those parts of the religion were for the first time ever questioned by their adherents. In some cases, myths were converted from literal truth to metaphor; in some cases, the scientists were persecuted and the advances lost to the ages until someone rediscovered their writings or reexamined that same aspect of reality; and in a few cases, whole swathes of myths were eliminated in the face of evidence against. To pick on the Abrahamic religions, which I know best and am exposed to most frequently, it was originally thought that the Earth was formed when Yahweh killed the great chaos-dragon Tiamat and placed its body in the waters, which became the only land mass the people of the time knew of. When we began to understand this planet as a sphere with water merely forming oceans on its surface, with multiple continents, rather than a vast disc of water with a single landmass on it, that part was left out of the “next revision” and subsequently forgotten.

But the core of these religions — the gods that comprise the kernel around which the morals and tenets of the religion are built — never seems to get supplanted. And that’s very likely because those gods are not only invented by humans, but because those gods are but reflections — echo chambers — for what people already believe. But why would they need such echo chambers for what they already believe to be good and right and just? Since they are already filled with an intrinsic sense of justice from having evolved as social creatures, and since their concept of their god is entirely dependent on their intrinsic morals, what’s the purpose of this middle-man now?

Humans invented gods to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the natural world when we didn’t yet have the ability to investigate them and figure out how our natural world actually works. These gods became moral law-bringers over time, to explain why we shouldn’t go out raping and pillaging. Humans then developed science as a way to investigate how the universe actually works, and thus the acts attributed to these gods rapidly dwindled. And yet the concept of “god” is still around as some sort of law-giver despite these laws being entirely written by humans.

At a certain point, we humans need to take ownership of the moral imperatives we already believe and practice. Good and evil do not exist outside the scope of our empathy for our fellow human beings. We believe in the continuation of our species as being good, and actions which directly threaten that continuation as being bad. We believe in social coherence where helping one another is good, but harming one another is bad. We believe that withholding help for someone in need, is bad. We write negotiated treaties on human rights, which declare certain inalienable rights for our fellow human beings, such as “do not torture, starve, objectify or physically or emotionally abuse others”. We write laws that demand that we protect our children from sexual advances and from other forms of predation.

In none of these laws do we see the hand of some imaginary deity intrinsically. Only in the minds of theists that believe in a deity, is that deity’s influence visible — and only in those laws that agree with these theists’ own values. In any law that has been negotiated by humans, with which this same theist disagrees, they see the hand of the devil, or the hand of wanton and godless humans whose intrinsic morals are apparently not good enough.

We’ve outgrown the need for gods to explain how the planets move and how the sun shines and how the plants grow. Isn’t it about time we outgrow the need for gods to provide echo chambers for our own intrinsic beliefs about good and evil? Why can we not sit at a table and hammer out some equitable, moral, and just laws, laws which ensure the perpetuation of the human species and the fair treatment and protection of each of its members, and take credit for these laws as a species, rather than attributing these laws to some higher power?

{advertisement}
Morality

5 thoughts on “Morality

  1. 1

    I think that a lot depends on how much confidence (or even faith) someone places in empathy or intrinsic morality alone as a guiding principle. I have great doubts about it, personally. If empathy and morality were quite as innate as you seem to think, I think that history would have been much less full of pain and suffering. There would also be much less disagreement about what is right and wrong, or what is just and unjust.

  2. 2

    This is absolutely true — but much of that pain was caused by people who used as their guiding principles the tenets written down by their religious leaders. Empathy IS intrinsic though, and our use of movies and television as entertainment proves it. If you watch a horror film and see someone get hit in the head with an axe, it disturbs you because you imagine what it must feel like to have your life end in that way. If you watch a drama, near the climax, the tension rises because you empathize with the person for whom the dramatic action is escalating and you breathe a sigh of relief when the conflict is resolved. And I just KNOW you cringe when you see a man hit in the pills. I sure do.

    We are capable of seeing and understanding other people’s emotions. Other animals are not capable of this (or at least we can’t prove they are, and there’s no suggestion from them that they are). Since most morality stems from this ability to empathize, and the innate drive to propagate and maintain our social structure amplifies our empathy with respect to society as a whole, it’s not so large a leap to say that morality is part of our “better angels”.

    I just wish we could sit down and hash out what’s important and moral and just and good, without dragging imaginary beings into it, beings which are ultimately merely echo chambers of one’s own beliefs, beings which serve in their being postulated only to increase the voice of any single member in the discussion. It turns A, B and C in the discussion to A, B, C, A’s god, and B’s god (and nobody for C since C is an atheist). Either A or B outnumbers C, if you count their gods as having a say.

Comments are closed.