What is the atheist view on the origin of morality?

I myself am an atheist, and I must admit that I was put against the wall when a theist asked me about the origin of morality. If morals do not originate from a God, where do they come from? The atheist point of view implies that all morality is pointless and a species would have better chances of survival if there was no such thing as moral conduct, however, as there indeed seems to be morals, where do they come from?

Posted: June 6th 2008


I think there are sound evolutionary reasons for morality – and there’s a wealth of literature out there that discusses it.

Simply put, “every man (or animal) for himself” only makes sense if there are no situations in which cooperation is better than going it alone.

This is pretty obvious in mammals. Mammals “care for” their young because their young share their genes (ie young who have parents who tend them are more likely to pass on their genes). Mammals work together (in packs/prides/whatever) because 1) it increases their own personal chances of survival (some hunting is possible only in packs) and 2) animals generally share genetic lineage with those in the group.

You see this in humans as well – we have tighter bonds to our families than to others, though we do generally extend our moral rules to other humans, not just those that are closely related to us genetically.

As for morals and god, morals cannot come from god, pretty much by definition.

The essence of making a moral choice is that the choice is not related to any possible benefit or punishment for the person making the choice. If I choose not to cheat on my taxes because I don’t want to go to jail, that’s not a moral choice – it’s a pragramatic one. If, on the other hand, I choose not to cheat on my taxes with the understanding that I could do so and not go to jail, that’s a moral choice.

If you ask people why they don’t steal, the majority will say they don’t do it because it’s wrong to steal (and they may make an analogy that they don’t want people to steal from them). That’s a moral judgement.

What does this have to do with god? Well, when god (and I’m assuming the xtian god here) says, “thou shall not kill”, if one does kill, not only may one end up in hell, one may miss out on heaven. Not killing for that reason is therefore a pragmatic choice, not a moral one.

Or, to put it another way, “follow these rules or else” is not a moral code.

Game theory is an interesting area of subject that is related to this question…

Posted: June 16th 2008

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

SmartLX www

It’s very unlikely that there are any absolute morals without a god. Rather than making a god more likely, this makes it unlikely that there are any absolute morals at all.

If true, this does not mean that morals do not exist, or apply. It simply means that we have created them ourselves. It isn’t so hard to imagine this happening.

As we developed as a species and as various civilisations, humans liked it when other humans cared about their needs and desires, and felt safer reciprocating when they were among people who did it. When someone didn’t play along, when they were completely self-centred to the exclusion of all others, it was beneficial to the group to punish that person. Over time, our empathy developed so we’d have a better picture of the needs and desires of others. As communication grew, we codified much of what we had come to do by instinct most of the time. Voila, the first morals people could actually point to.

The creation of morals is only outside human capacity if morals are something completely outside of us and our influence, effectively independent of us. It seems plausible; some atrocities, rapes and murders and such, seem literally absolutely wrong.

Thing is, they go on all the time in the animal kingdom, and we don’t care. If some higher alien species saw us the way we see fruit bats, they’d think nothing of our tragedies, except in the detached way we think of declining populations of fruit bats.

It’s often said that atheists cannot absolutely condemn an atrocity (read: they have no ultimate authority on which to condemn an atrocity). That’s probably true, but why bother? If something isn’t wrong outside of human beings, what does it matter? We are all human beings. It’s wrong to us. Without condemning absolutely, we can condemn objectively by any number of bases – harm, benefit, intention, physical effect and so on. None of these is a perfect moral guide, but collectively they are very, very good.

Morality is not pointless just because there’s no god making a point with it. Our species would not have better chances of survival if there were no such thing as moral conduct, because we have the destructive power to tear ourselves apart in global conflict if it suited us. Because of our natural empathy and our human-made, human-tested moral codes older than literacy itself, this does not suit us at all.

Posted: June 9th 2008

See all questions answered by SmartLX

bitbutter www

You write:

The atheist point of view implies that all morality is pointless and a species would have better chances of survival if there was no such thing as moral conduct

First of all, atheism (absence of god belief) doesn’t imply that morality is pointless, it says nothing about morality.

Second, you’re mistaken that morality (a sense of right and wrong, or fairness) would be a handicap to a group of animals. In fact, from what we know about non-zero-sum games, we’d expect that groups of animals who cooperate would survive better than those who don’t.

Here’s a simple illustration: Imagine two tribes of early humans competing over a hunting ground. If they cooperate and split the hunting ground between them, they can both concentrate on catching food instead of having to devote precious resources to fighting. If they don’t cooperate, its even possible that the tribes damage each other so badly that both become extinct as a result of the conflict.

Now imagine that one of two uncooperative tribes did destroy its rival and won exclusive use of the hunting ground—would they be better off than cooperative animals? Not if the members of this victorious tribe lacked a rudimentary sense of fair-play. If this was the case they would 'cheat’ on each other and in-tribe fighting would cripple their chances of surviving as a group. They too would go extinct.

I hope this example shows how an idea of fairness, which I believe is the basis of what we call morality, can greatly increase the chances of animals’ survival.

Posted: June 9th 2008

See all questions answered by bitbutter


Evolutionary biology findings show that morality stems from empathy. Empathy developed so the members of the kin group would take care of each other increasing their chances of survival, in turn leading to the propagation of their genes. To paraphrase Dawkins, the selfish gene leads to an altruistic society.

Posted: June 9th 2008

See all questions answered by logicel


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