The three pillars of morality – and why God isn't one of them

In The God Argument (which I've almost finished), A.C. Grayling describes the theism-atheism debate as being comprised of three related but distinct arguments:
  1. The metaphysical – what exists and what doesn't
  2. The place of religion in society
  3. The grounding of moral norms
I think that's a pretty fair summation. I've spent a fair bit of time on this blog talking about the first argument (or rather group of arguments), and a little bit talking about the second – although certainly not on the scale of someplace like Friendly Atheist, which is almost solely devoted to secularist issues. But the third has always been close to my heart, perhaps even more so than the metaphysical arguments. I did a series on morality some time ago, but I haven't touched on the topic too much recently. I've been reflecting on it quite a bit though, and I think it's time I share my thoughts. I don't know how much of what I'm about to argue is new for me, but as with all arguments I've made a concerted effort to understand things in their simplest terms. So, what I'm about to present is the slightly abridged version of my current thoughts on the moral argument (the long form will have to wait for the book I may or may not ever finish).

The three pillars of morality

It's my firm belief that moral theory, by itself, is rather useless. Since morality encompasses behavioral proscriptions for human societies, any moral theory worth considering must actually be pragmatic. It's fine to wax abstractly about imaginary or implausible scenarios, but any functional moral system must be grounded in objective facts about the human experience. I think this is the kind of "objective morality" that Sam Harris describes – not some sort of abstraction that somehow transcends human existence (like the moral nature of a god), but ideas grounded in scientific facts about who we are and how we function as a society (or rather, as a collection of societies). So with that in mind, these are the three facts I think must underpin any functional system of moral norms:

1. We are self-interested

It is a fact of human nature that the overwhelming majority of us are concerned for our own survival and well-being. There may be nihilists (probably many more in principle than in practice) who are cavalier regarding their own well-being and don't care whether they live or die or whether they live free of unnecessary suffering and in relative happiness. But I think that such people are so utterly rare, if they even exist at all, as to be utterly insignificant in the grand moral scheme. For morality is concerned with how a society functions through interpersonal relationships and cooperation, and self-interest is a prerequisite to even have a society in the first place. After all, the whole point of living in a society is that doing so confers incalculable benefits on its members, in exchange for certain responsibilities. If we didn't care about having those benefits, we'd just go in the woods and live by ourselves (assuming, if we were truly nihilists, that we'd even bother to live at all).

Though I'll discuss the point more later, it's worth digressing a bit now to point out that theistic concepts of morality similarly cannot function without taking our self-interested nature as a basic fact. After all, it doesn't do much good to entice someone with the reward of eternal paradise or threaten them with eternal torment if they have no regard for their own happiness and well-being. So the fact that self-interest is a basic reality of the human experience is one that should not be in the slightest dispute.

2. We are interdependent

I'll reiterate what I wrote above: the whole point of living in a society is that doing so confers incalculable benefits on its members, in exchange for certain responsibilities. It shouldn't take much of an imagination to start thinking of the innumerable ways that living in a society benefits us over living along in nature. From modern food, medicine, and shelter to recreation, transportation and communication, the benefits of living in a society are immeasurable. But society is too vague a word; a more accurate description is cooperative social hierarchy. 

Cooperative because of our interdependence – literally ever aspect of our survival and well-being depends to one degree or another on other people. Think just for a moment of the computer on which you are reading this post, and the immeasurable hours and cooperation that went into its manufacturing. From the mining of the raw materials, research and development of the product, to manufacturing and world-wide distribution – and going all the way back to the contributions in physics (particularly quantum mechanics) and engineering that made computing possible in the first place – it's positively mind-boggling how such an innocuous and everyday device is so utterly dependent on human cooperation on a truly incomprehensible scale. You can repeat this type of process for virtually anything that you own. Even if you chopped down the tree yourself to make your back yard fence, chances are you didn't make your own axe from iron ore you mined in your back yard.

Social because, quite obviously, cooperation requires interaction. And interaction must be governed by certain rules. The benefits of society come at cost: we have to play the game. We get angry at people who exploit the kindness of others, including state and federal aid programs, precisely because we recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute to the society from which we benefit. If we all took the path of those few leaches and simply tried to exploit others' goodwill, soon enough there'd be no more goodwill left to exploit. Being self-interested as we are, we would have no interest in contributing to a society in which we got little or nothing back. Is it any wonder, for example, that African-American slaves rebelled, tried to escape their 'owners', and could only be kept subservient under the harshest of conditions and threats? This desire for fairness stems from the two facts that we are both self-interested and interdependent.

Hierarchy because we are not equal. I don't mean that in the sense of legal equality, but in the sense that our abilities and intellect vary wildly and we are not all capable of contributing to society to the same degree or in the same way. We all recognize that certain roles are difficult to fill, and individuals cannot be easily substituted. Mothers cannot be swapped out like fast-food workers given the complex nature of parent-child relationships; theoretical physicists require a degree of specialized knowledge that is difficult to attain without an exceptional aptitude for mathematics, logic, and abstract thinking. Even physical labor can be highly specialized, with everyone from machinists to construction workers requiring varying degrees of training and physical fitness. This principle extends as well into arts and entertainment, which we value because they contribute to our enjoyment of leisure even though they don't directly contribute to our well-being.

This cooperative social hierarchy encompasses the fact of our interdependence which, like our self-interest, is an undeniable fact of the human condition. It should already be apparent how these two facts interact to evolve moral norms, but there is still one more fact to consider.

3. We are empathetic

There are a small number of people who, due literally to abnormalities in the brain, lack the ability to empathize with others – sociopaths and those with severe autism, for example. But, not unlike the imaginary nihilist, those individuals comprise only a very small – as in negligibly small – portion of society, such that we really need not concern ourselves with them when discussing a pragmatic system of morality. The overwhelming majority of human beings have a deep sense of empathy imbued by millions of years of evolution. The primatologist Frans de Waal's research on empathetic behavior in primates is highly illustrative of the primal nature of this powerful emotion. It shows that it's not only in our nature to be self-interested, but to form bonds with others as well.

While moral thought is generally discussed in rational terms, cognitive scientists have known for a long time that moral behavior itself is often highly irrational. If we see a toddler wandering around in the middle of busy street, we do not pause to ponder the cost-benefit analysis of rushing into the street to save them. Likewise, a mother's powerful bond with her newborn baby isn't born out of a detached, rational assessment of the child's familial and societal worth but of a powerful empathetic bond governed by primitive regions of the brain dominated by emotion.

But while empathy itself is not rational, it's not difficult to see why empathy is such a powerful force in social evolution. Certainly it confers immeasurable benefits on a society for it to protect the young and to form strong interpersonal bonds. It may seem counter-intuitive for a society to protect weak or injured members, but there are two explanations. One is that, like virtually everything in evolution, that something confers a benefit doesn't mean it was selected for that benefit. For example, sexual lust has obvious benefits for our reproduction; it certainly stands to reason that animals with a strong desire to mate are more likely to do so than animals with only a very weak desire to mate. Sexual pleasure is an obvious benefit that reinforces pair-bonds and/or may simply just be for a flight of visceral pleasure, but those are likely just side effects of the selective evolutionary process. Similarly, empathy may have been selected for because it has powerful effects on caring for and protecting the young while helping individuals form close, reciprocal relationships. Empathy for the infirmed may be an indirect result of natural selection. The second, and related, explanation is that because we are in a hierarchy of unequal members, empathy for the infirmed may have indirect payoffs. A member that is physically weak may contribute to society in other invaluable ways – through intellect, through interpersonal mediation, etc.

There are still those who are simply incapable of ever contributing to society, such as mentally and physically dependent elderly persons, or the severely mentally disabled. (Keep in mind that I'm referring to a certain degree of severity in loss of function, such as advanced Alzheimer's; I'd never suggest that the elderly or mentally disabled cannot contribute to society – nothing could be farther from the truth!) Yet our innate human empathy takes us beyond a purely rational scope of moral behavior by allowing us to see the humanity in them. We recognize that although they may be incapable of forming normal relationships or contributing to society at large, they are not willfully exploiting the goodwill of others. They've arrived at their unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own, and we thus while we may say that we rationally recognize that they ought to be afforded as much autonomy and the best quality of life we can provide – for surely it's not difficult to imagine ourselves or someone we love ending up in just such a circumstance – empathy, not reason, is the real engine that drives our treatment of the disabled.

Empathy is the engine that drives all these behaviors, and the biological fact of its existence is integral for understanding a functional system of morality.

Why God is irrelevant to morality

These three facts about the human condition form the pillars that are required for any functional system of morality to exist. I say required because, as in the earlier example, even theistic forms of morality must implicitly acknowledge these facts in order to be functional. The problem with theistic morality, though, is that it introduces an extra metaphysical claim about reality which, it claims, can transcend any of the above facts. If God so commands it, then women must be covered in shrouds and stripped of many of their most basic human rights. If God so commands it, entire rivaling cultures can be righteously wiped out through warfare and conquest.

It's ironic that theists often claim that "without God, anything is permissible", because it is the opposite that is true. The elephant in the room, of course, is that no one has direct, objective, and independently verifiable access to the mind of God. Instead, God's commands and decrees are filtered through fallible human minds who may or may not have gotten the message quite right. This means that contrary to the Genesis scripture, God is made in the image of man. This isn't idle speculation or provocation, either – it's backed by science. Studies have shown that believers ascribe qualities to God that reinforce beliefs and biases they already have [1]. It's not merely unlikely, but virtually inconceivable that a pious devotee of religion will have a radical change of heart on a key moral issue through nothing but prayer in which they attempt to listen to God's instruction. After all, if God's instruction were that easy to hear, there wouldn't be so much bickering over His purported decrees to begin with.

But the broader issue of morality is even more devastating to the case for a divine moral arbiter. Let's take, for example, the popular Christian commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself". There are two possibilities here: one is that God has no particular reason for issuing this commandment; it is wholly arbitrary and it is not our place to question it, only to obey. In that case, 'morality' is determined not by any faculty of reason but by mere obedience under threat of punishment or promise of reward. But it's trivially true that the moral "rightness" of any action is irrespective of reward and punishment. Tyrants may coerce people into horrible acts of cruelty under threat of torture or the murder of their loved ones, but that doesn't justify those actions. Morality based on this sort of Pavlovian reward and punishment is hardly morality at all; it treats humans as children incapable of rational inquiry. For many believers though, from Ray Comfort to Fred Phelps to William Lane Craig, this infantile view of morality is integral to their theology.

But imagine instead that God's commands aren't arbitrary – that God actually has good, rational reasons for commanding them. I think this is how most believers want to conceptualize God, even if they think – ironically – that God's reasons are ineffable (the problem for the theist is that 'ineffable' is functionally indistinguishable from 'arbitrary'). But regardless, let's imagine that God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves not as some sort of test but because that is a moral norm that will lead to a mutually beneficial relationship to all – that God wants what is best for us. If that's the case, why can we not reason that we ought to live that way? After all, what does that commandment fundamentally do if not recognize that we are both self-interested and interdependent? And if such commands can be arrived at by reason alone – as they can be if we begin by acknowledging those facts – then God's 'commands' have become utterly impotent. We don't need to be commanded, like naive children, to love our neighbors as ourselves; we can arrive through such a moral proscription through reason alone. This relegates God to a superficial role, not unlike the figurehead monarchs of modern-day secular England.

For all these reasons, God simply cannot be the basis for any functional system of moral norms. The very idea that God is the arbiter of morality is flatly contradictory to what morality is and how it functions. Instead, we begin by acknowledging basic facts about the human condition and from there, we form rules and norms which govern our actions and reprimand those who exploit others. Accordingly, such a moral system maintains a certain degree of pliability, which theists – in their naive adherence to a childlike view of morality – find repulsive. The basic concepts of fairness and empathy are deeply embedded in any sustainable moral system, but the needs and interests of society can and do change over time, requiring us to revisit moral norms by pondering and discussing how to best live in this cooperative social hierarchy. Religion merely sours the discussion when its dogmatic adherents claim to have the One Right Way to which all of the rest of society must conform, with no justification other than transparently impotent appeals to an ineffable deity. 

Broader issues

I mentioned at the start that this is the abridged version of my thoughts on this discussion, which might seem a tad ironic given the length of this post. But there are other topics for discussion, stemming from this one, that I don't have the space to address here. Many of these are the sort of trite 'gotcha' canards that theists employ in a feeble attempt to trip up non-believers: "What if Hitler had won?" "What about Stalin and Mao?" "What about when people cooperate to hurt others?" But while I don't have the space for indulging all of these in this post, the tools for answering those questions are all here and frankly, it can only be through a failure of critical thought that one cannot arrive at the answers.

There is a name for the kind of morality that I am advocating. It's not new, and it predates the major world religions and appears independently of them in cultures across the globe and throughout time: I'm talking of course about humanism. I've outlined what I think are the basic pillars of humanism, but there is a great deal more to discuss. Fortunately, thinkers from Confucius to Cicero to A.C. Grayling have written extensively on these concepts, so I can at least for now take a bow and with that say that in my experience at least, those who dismiss humanism in favor of a naive theistic are almost always astoundingly ignorant of humanism and the writings that have elucidated its conceptual underpinnings over the centuries. But from minds who revere childlike subservience over free inquiry and reason, I'd expect nothing less. 


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