SurvivalBefore talking about ethical behavior towards other people, let us talk about such behavior with ourselves. Why do we not just kill ourselves?
Imagine an organism that was genetically inclined to kill itself. Obviously, this organism would produce fewer offspring than an organism that does not have this tendency. Thus, the self-destructive trait would have lesser chances of being passed on. If this process continues for a thousand generations, we will see that this trait will have completely disappeared. This is the principle of natural selection. It follows that any organism that is alive today is non-self-killing. All species that exist today have a hard-wired drive to survive. This is simply a necessary requirement for having reached the present.
This does not mean that organisms cannot or do not kill themselves. An individual mutation can make the survival instinct weaker in one individual. For humans, many more factors can play a role, including psychological, medical, economic, and social ones. Natural selection does not predict that no one will ever kill themselves. It does predict, though, that in general, every existing species has a basic tendency to aim for its survival. This is indeed what we observe also in humans.
People who consider suicide don’t want to stop their life.
They want to stop the pain.
Animal moralityAnimals show a basic tendency to avoid death. However, this is about the only component of animal behavior that appears to resemble human moral values. In fact, animals often show behavior that is rather “immoral”.
First, many species can only live if they kill other animals. This entails that the life of any carnivore is a continuous chasing, tearing apart, and guzzling of other animals. Every single animal that is devoured means that there is fear of death, the pain of being killed, and a life destroyed. All carnivore existence continuously involves the killing of other animals. Nature appears inherently brutal. This is understandable: it is not beneficial for the survival of one species to spare another species. On the contrary, a species that plays “nice” will just be eaten and eradicated. Hence, all species that survived in the animal kingdom until today pay no respect to the life of any other species — unless it is useful for themselves. As a common saying in evolutionary psychology goes: Animals have evolved to serve mainly the “four F”: Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and reproducing.
In the pursuit of these 4 Fs, the well-being of another animal plays no role. For example, some spider species eat not just their prey, but also devour their mates. This is because their mates do not serve any reproductive purpose any more, they are too weak to defend themselves, and provide a valuable source of protein. Eating the mate offered an evolutionary advantage, and so spiders that behaved this way survived. Spiders of this species today therefore devour their mate — even though if humans did this we would consider it immoral.
When lions take over a harem, they slaughter the entire population of baby lions in the group. From a human perspective this appears cruel and wanton. However, it has a clear evolutionary advantage: It serves to eliminate all the genes of the preceding alpha lion, and to make sure all successive offspring stems from the new lion. As before, the lion pays no respect to the fact that the baby lions are alive – even though they are animals of their own species.
Parasites infect the host animal and live in the body of the host. The Acanthocephala worm, for example, infects crustaceans that live in the water. It causes the host animal to swim towards the surface, where it is then usually eaten by a bird such as a duck. The duck then serves as the ultimate host for the worm. The crustacean is sacrificed as an intermediate stage in that process. The worm does not “care” about the life of the crustacean. Another type of parasite are roundworms (shown on the right). These live in human or animal intestines. They grow to a length of up to 35 cm and may cause lung diseases in the human. The roundworm does not care at all about the well-being of the human. It just “cares” for its own survival.
The list goes on: Some wasps lay their eggs in their prey without killing it, so that the larvae slowly eat their host alive. Or take malaria. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people die from this disease, which is transmitted by mosquitos. Of course, the mosquito does not care at all whether humans die. The mosquito just cares whether humans deliver the blood that the mosquitos feed on. The malaria virus also does not care whether the human dies. The virus just has to make sure that it is transmitted before the host dies (“has to make sure” is to be understood in the sense of pseudo-intention). All virus mutations that kill the host instantly before the transmission occurred have died together with their host. Hence, all viruses that exist today do not instantly kill.
Animals with higher brain functions are no exceptions. Cats, for example, often do not kill their prey, but just incapacitate it. They will for example injure a mouse so that it cannot run. Then they will let it go a bit — just to catch it again. They will throw it in the air, punch it, or play with it like a ball — all while the mouse is still alive. They will even start chewing it, but only a bit. Cats do all of this apparently for entertainment. Curiosity and dexterity served them well throughout their existence. Pity for mice did not.
All of this shows us that there is no “ethical behavior” in nature. Nature is often mainly about eating and being eaten.
In nature, every mouth is a slaughter-house and every stomach is a tomb.
EmpathyWe have seen that there is no such thing as ethical behavior in nature. However, certain species (among them humans) show a basic tendency to dislike suffering in others (in the functional sense that we have discussed before).
This trait, which is called empathy in humans, has been observed in canines, felines, dolphins, primates, rats, mice and even ants. Sand-dwelling Mediterranean ants, for example, engage in rescuing behavior when one of their nest mates is trapped in nylon thread. The ants not ensnared proceeded to attempt to rescue their nest mates by sand digging, limb pulling, transporting sand away from the trapped ant, and even begin to attack the nylon thread itself, biting and pulling apart the threads.
To see why this makes sense, consider a species of animals that lives in social structures. In such social structures, the presence of the individual is useful for the community. Otherwise the community would not have formed in the first place, and the individuals would just go their own way. The community provides protection from predators, an opportunity to find mates, a system to raise the young, and the possibility to find new sources of food collectively. Now assume that there is a mutation where the individuals show a basic form of care for each other: whenever one of them is attacked, the others help. In such a system, the individuals have a slightly higher chance of survival. Therefore, the community will have more individuals, provide its services better, leading to its members producing more offspring and ultimately outrunning egoistic variants of the species.
This explains why certain animals with social structures have a basic sense of empathy. This does not mean that every individual would be empathetic. In fact, many are not. However, for humans, most of us suffer when another human suffers.
If you can’t tell right from wrong, you lack empathy, not religion.
AltruismEmpathy is a basic ability to suffer with people who suffer. Empathy induces the desire to help suffering people, and such help is called altruism.
Like empathy, altruism appears in humans and some animal species. For example, green monkeys warn each other of predators using different calls. Zoologists have identified one call that means “Careful! An eagle!” (causing those who hear it to look up in fear) and another one that means “Warning! A lion!” (causing those who hear it to climb on a tree) 1. Again, the notion of fear is to be understood here in the functional sense that we have discussed before. Such behavior of warning others is beneficial for the survival of the group, and hence the trait has had an evolutionary advantage. Beyond that, it can be shown that, for humans, helping other people actually makes people feel happy. That altruism causes feelings of happiness makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view: if helping makes you happy, you help more, and societies with happy helpers were more successful. Interestingly, research has also found the opposite to be true as well: happier people are also kinder. Psychologists generally refer to this virtuous cycle of helping others, doing good and subsequently feeling good as “the helper’s high”.
Thus, altruism may ultimately not be so altruistic after all. Individuals appear to be altruistic mainly for egoistic reasons — namely to feel good. While this poses a problem from a philosophical and religious point of view, it does not from an evolutionary point of view: the helper’s high is the way that evolution found to make us care for each other.
The cuckoo egg principleWe have seen that empathy and altruism may be a consequence of the fact that social communities benefit the survival of the species. This principle, however, suggests that we should feel more empathy for a person that is useful to us, and less empathy for a person from whom we do not directly benefit. This does not happen in practice.
The reason is most likely that empathy evolved before humans had the brainpower to compute the utility of a fellow human. The main principle that proved useful was “take care of other humans” — even if you are unable to figure out how useful exactly that other human being is going to be. This trait evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Now the problem is that such ancient behavioral traits are coarse-grained. Consider for example birds. Birds are hard-wired to feed their young. However, birds will feed any young in their nest, not just their own. Birds will even feed young birds of other species, if they happen to be in the nest. This is how cuckoos work: They just put their eggs in the nest of another bird, which will then raise the cuckoos along with its own offspring. The bird does not know or understand that (from a purely evolutionary standpoint) it has to feed only its own young. The trait that developed was not “feed your young”, but “feed whatever opens its beak in your nest”. Similarly, the trait that humans developed was not “take care of another human if you figure that they will be of use to you”, but “take care of another human”. This is the cuckoo egg principle: Behavioral traits are rough 2.
Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible (Luke 10:25–37)? How he helped the man who was beaten and left half dead alongside the road?
Now you know what? The good Samaritan was not a Christian!
He was a Samaritan.
ReciprocityWe have seen that animals can show compassion to other animals of the same species. This mechanism is driven by the evolutionary benefits that empathy brings to the kin. There is also another mechanism in which animals care for other animals: reciprocity.
Reciprocity is the principle that one individual does a favor to another individual in the expectation that this favor is returned. The classical example is the monkey who turns its back to another monkey to pick out the parasites (pictured). After some time, the roles will be reversed. A monkey cannot remove the parasites from its own back, but if the monkeys work together, they can remove the parasites from each other’s back and both benefit.
Also known as “tit for tat”, this is a very simple mechanism that humans use as well. Suppose for example that you are a hunter-gatherer some tens of thousands of years ago. One day, you are lucky and you kill a deer. You can’t possibly eat all of it in a day, and refrigerators are still a few centuries away. You decide to share the deer with the group, in the hopes that you will profit from others’ spoils when your haul is less impressive 3. Some societies have developed this concept into the notion of reputation: A good reputation basically means that a person reciprocates the favors that others have granted them — no matter whether the compensation is immediate or not.
The concept can also be generalized beyond mutual help. In a society, people benefit from sharing knowledge, solidarity, support or property. The society benefits if everybody generally contributes — no matter whether the donor receives their compensation from the recipient or from some other person. Therefore, society holds in high esteem those who contribute selflessly.
If I sometimes need help from others, then sometimes others will need help from me. Therefore, we help others. We are kind to each other. We share. What goes around comes around — it does not take a rocket scientist to figure this out.
PactsImagine a society where there are no moral norms. In such a society, the law of the strongest would prevail: Whoever is strongest takes what he needs. There would be stealing, raping, and killing. These would be moderated by the built-in concept of empathy. But there would be no protection from those who have these traits less strongly developed or who have learned to overcome them.
Now imagine that you were thrown into such a society. What would be the first thing you do? You might be tempted to run away. But you still have to hunt and/or grow food, which is very hard to do when you are alone. You could not even sleep at night comfortably for fear of being surprised and slaughtered. So what do you do?
You would likely find another person who is in a similar situation as you. Then you make a deal: You won’t hurt that person if that person does not hurt you. Now each of you can sleep half of the night. This is a particular instance of reciprocity. Later, more people may join the deal. Each of them vows not to harm any of the members. Each of them has to be judged for their trustworthiness before being admitted to the club. What you wind up with is a society based on a non-aggression pact — the root of a moral system. One variant of this scheme is that several people stick around one particularly strong member — a “protector”.
This scenario might seem highly artificial; however, this is exactly what happens when you put humans together in a rough environment. They form clubs of non-aggression. This happens in prison populations, as well as in Mafia circles, or in groups of refugees or displaced persons. People always cling together for mutual protection. This works only if members of the group don’t harm each other, and hence they quickly make a kind of pact between them. Such behavior emerges in any group of people out of a desire for safety.
It does not take a genius, or a god, to figure out that no normal human being wants to be murdered.
PunishmentWe have seen that societies or sub-societies make pacts of non-aggression. Now what happens if one of the members violates the pact?
Suppose that there is a group of 10 people, and one of them kills another one, thus breaking the pact. How would the others react? Suppose they did nothing. Then the pact is not worth anything – it is as if you had no pact at all. If you are in this group and you see that members kill each other with impunity, you’d better join another club. You would want to join a group where the members punish any deviation from the pact in order that there was a deterrent to you yourself getting harmed. In such a system, individuals not only benefit from the mutual non-aggression, but they also know that if they transgress, they will pay a price, and therefore they do not. The threat of punishment is one of the most effective ways to prevent aggression. Thus, every member of the group has an interest in keeping up (and implementing) this threat of punishment.
ConscienceWe have seen that a system of pacts and punishments emerges wherever humans have to live together. One particular instance of this phenomenon is a family. Children usually follow what their parents do or tell them. This has proven an evolutionary advantage, since the parents are examples of a successful strategy of survival. Furthermore, the parents have accumulated more experience, i.e., they have validated more theories. Finally, children are physically weaker than the parents and dependent on them, and thus the parents can enforce or prevent certain behavior. Now one of the first things that parents tell their children is to adhere to the pact of non-aggression that forms the basis of their clan. If the children do not follow the pact, the family risks being thrown out of the club.
This leads to a mechanism where children are expected to follow norms. If they don’t, they are punished, and are taught to feel bad. Thus, most humans today have learned the basic ability to follow norms. This mechanism is still in effect through the process of education from our childhood. This process has formed our basic ability to adhere to norms — a phenomenon that we call “conscience”.
The basic recipe for inner harmony:
What you believe = what you say = what you do
TyranniesWe have seen that people have an interest in establishing moral norms in order to protect themselves. In this scenario, people voluntarily establish norms and ensure that everybody observes them.
However, there are also cases where a strongman establishes control over the others. Examples are alpha-males in teams, companies, or organizations; the kings of old times; and the dictators and autocratic regimes of modernity. Such despots establish rules, which guarantee peace as long as no one questions their dominance. Steven Pinker gives the example of early governments: They pacified the people they ruled, reducing internecine violence, but imposing a reign of terror that included slavery, harems, human sacrifice , summary executions, and the torture and mutilation of dissidents and deviants. Such despotism has persisted throughout history not just because being a despot is nice work if you can get it, but because the alternative of unregulated anarchy was often worse 4. The despot may be repulsive, and it is dangerous to cross him, but at least he guarantees peace. He establishes rules and makes people follow them — and for the average man, this is better than living in chaos. History seems to prove these people right. The historian Matthew White has estimated the death toll of the hundred bloodiest episodes in 2500 years of human history. He concludes: “Chaos is deadlier than tyranny. More [deaths] result from the breakdown of authority than from the [despotic] exercise of authority.” 5
Thus, even despotic systems have their raison d'être. In reality, we often see mixtures of the voluntary and the involuntary model, where a ruler promises to uphold peace in the community, but also uses his power to cement his own position.
Why people follow normsWe have seen people form pacts of non-agression and how these are enforced by punishments and education. So when we ask why people adhere to norms, we can now offer several reasons:
- Most of us have a built-in tendency to feel another’s suffering from their point of view when we see someone else suffering. Hence, we usually avoid hurting others.
- We have an interest in protecting our life, limb, and property. We understand that others will protect our assets only if we protect theirs. This gives rise to a system of moral pacts in which we agree to protect each other.
- The idea of pacts goes beyond the protection of basic assets. We know that our lives are much easier if we can rely on the society to help us when we are in need. If we do not behave accordingly, society will be much less inclined to help us. Thus, it is in our interest to be a respected member of that society.
- We have been trained from our childhood to feel bad when we break norms. This system continues to work into adulthood — it is our conscience.
- Fear of punishment
- If a person believes that they are going to be punished for a deed, then they are less likely to do that deed.
I don't take his toys, and he doesn't take my toys.
Moral rulesWe have seen that humans follow moral norms for a variety of reasons. We will now look at the philosophical and logical nature of norms. Technically, we distinguish three types of behaviors:
- Morally wrong behaviors
- These are behaviors that we want to avoid and punish. For example, most people agree that theft is morally wrong.
- Morally obligatory behaviors
- These are the things that we are morally obliged to do. One example is calling the police when we see a crime.
- Morally permissible behaviors
- These are the things that we may do. For example, most people will agree that it is morally OK to eat chocolate.
We cannot then say that a certain behavior is objectively morally wrong. Such a statement would be unfalsifiable. We can only say that certain people find certain actions morally wrong. For example, we can say:
This does not mean that we cannot argue about moral statements: We can, e.g., say that we believe that any invasion of a country should be vetted by the international community, and that, since such a vetting did not take place, the invasion of Iraq was morally wrong. Such an argument is a perfectly rational reasoning step (called a syllogism). However, the initial problem remains: The assertion that “Every invasion should be vetted by the international community” remains a subjective opinion. Even supposedly universal maxims such as “Society should not fall apart” or “All people should be treated equally” are subjective: We can very well wish that an oppressive, misogynistic, slave-holding society such as the Islamic State should fall apart. Vice versa, the Islamic State does not share the opinion that “All people should be treated equally”. Even if we agree on the premises, it is a long way from there to moral rules: For example, there is some evidence for the theory “If more citizens abandon mainstream religion, society will be destabilized”. Yet, we may hesitate to conclude that we should hence impose the same religion on all of us — something that atheists and adherents of other religions would abhor.
In summary, moral statements are personal opinions about the morality of a behavior. This entails that a person cannot be wrong about their own moral valuation of a behavior: People can feel as they wish about the morality of a certain action. That is something we can regret, but we will later argue that this does not make it any less true. Moral statements are subjective, but they are falsifiable: it suffices to ask the person about their opinion about the morality of a certain behavior. Nevertheless, moral statements by different people cannot contradict each other: “I find the invasion of Iraq wrong” is as true as “You find the invasion of Iraq acceptable”. These opinions clash only when we try to agree on a common set of rules, such as “Invasions should be vetted by the international community”. Such common sets of rules in the form of moral statements are called moral frameworks.
Moral frameworksMoral statements are statements that attach a moral label to a behavior. Typically, moral statements come in the form of a whole package. These packages are called moral frameworks. Examples for moral frameworks are:
- The national criminal law. The law says that certain behaviors are morally wrong.
- Religious scripture. Religious books commonly tell people what is good behavior and what is bad behavior.
- Commandments, such as the Ten Commandments or other lists of do’s and don’ts.
- Politeness codes. These codes can regulate, for example, that people should sneeze in their elbow.
A moral framework labels certain behaviors as morally bad, others as morally obligatory, and again others as morally permissible. This means that the moral framework itself appears as the moral authority, i.e., as the entity that attaches a moral label to a certain behavior. For example, the moral framework “National Criminal Law of Germany” says something like this:
The nature of moral statementsMoral frameworks are nothing metaphysical: They are just lists of statements written on a piece of paper, on a stone, or on a computer — or even just transmitted orally. They do not have any intrinsic moral force. They are just statements. They obtain their force if people decide to adhere to these rules, or if they decide to punish people who don’t. Thus, the meaning of “I find theft immoral” in the sense of this book is simply: “If you steal, I will be angry with you, and I will try to punish you”. This does not make theft objectively morally bad. It just means that you have to fear consequences when you steal.
If a moral framework is enforced by a government, it becomes a legal framework. The rules of such frameworks are called laws. Something is legal, if the legal framework deems it morally acceptable. The concept of legality is often opposed to the concept of morality. While the former refers to the laws of a country, the latter refers to the “natural” or “true” moral quality of actions. We have already seen that there exists no such “natural” or “true” moral quality of actions. All moral frameworks are just lists of human preferences. Therefore, when people criticize a law as “immoral”, they usually mean that it contradicts their own personal moral framework.
Moral frameworks come into existence if someone defines them. This is done mostly by writing them down. The creators of the criminal law, for example, gathered and produced a document that contains rules with moral statements. Such a moral framework comes into effect if someone establishes punishments for those who do not observe the rules. For example, the government of a country decides to enforce its criminal law, and to use its jurisdiction and executive power to prosecute people who behave morally wrong according to this law. This does not make the law “true” or “good” in any sense. It just means that the law is enforced.
Since moral frameworks define what is good and what is bad, a given moral framework cannot be by itself “good”. It cannot be “better” than another moral framework. For example, we cannot say that the British Law is “better” than the Ten Commandments. The quality of two moral frameworks can be compared only with reference to a third moral framework. For example, if we take the Human Rights as a reference framework, then we can discuss whether British Law implements Human Rights “better” than the Ten Commandments. This, however, still does not tell us whether the Human Rights are “good”. An alternative for comparing the two systems is to use a measure such as the happiness of the population. In such a scenario we would still need the third moral framework that tells us that this measure is what we call “good”. (As Ursula Le Guin showed in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a system with slavery may well optimize the average happiness of the population — just not that of the slaves.)
Societies with moral rulesMoral frameworks are lists of do’s and don’ts. Any group of people can have moral frameworks. Here are examples for such groups:
- Associations (such as a golfers’ club or a charity) are typically governed by a moral framework in the form of regulations. These say who can be a member and what are the rights and duties of the members.
- Organized Criminals
- Criminal gangs also establish moral frameworks to govern their own workings. The Italian Mafia, for example, uses a code of 10 Commandments that all its members have to follow. The rules prohibit going to pubs, being seen with cops, or looking at another member’s wife. They also require the members to uphold “moral values” 6.
- Rebel Groups
- Rebel groups aim to overthrow a government. In order to ensure that all group members work for a common end, such groups typically establish rules. These rules usually require members to swear an oath to the group leader, to protect other members, and to fight for the cause of the rebel group.
- Religious denominations
- Religions usually come with a framework of conduct, which typically regulates things such as murder, theft, sexual deviations, and rites. The followers of the religion are expected to follow these rules, and are punished or promised punishment if they don’t.
- A moral framework enforced by a government is called a “law” . The subjects are the citizens of the country. Different legal systems have evolved over time.
Subjects of moral frameworksMoral frameworks are lists of do’s and don’ts, and any group of people can have moral frameworks. The people governed by the enforcement of the framework are called the “subjects of the framework”. This leaves the question of how the framework acquires its power over its subjects.
In modern societies, we usually require that moral codes be agreed upon by the people. This tradition stems from the ancient Greek ideals of democracy, and was reportedly also used in the establishment of the Twelve Tables law in the early Roman Empire. The US constitution was likewise voted into effect, as are most modern constitutions. In modern liberal democracies, every law is voted into effect by representative governments, which are elected by the citizens. Thus, at least in theory, the citizens themselves decide what laws they give themselves. When a law has come into effect, any citizen becomes subject to the law, no matter whether they supported this law or not. A similar principle applies to associations, such as golf clubs. These typically vote their rules into effect.
Voting is only one possible way in which a moral framework can come into effect. Another way is force. In absolute monarchies, for example, the ruler can just decide the laws and enforce them. Anybody who lives in that place then becomes subject to the law. This is how the medieval monarchies in Europe used to function. There are still 6 countries today that are absolute monarchies: Brunei, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, the Vatican City, and Qatar . Dictatorships work very similarly: The dictator can just decide laws and force them upon his people.
One can also become a subject of a moral framework by force. If, for example, a rebel group takes over a country, it will start imposing its own moral framework. Whoever happens to be in the range of power of this group becomes subject to their law. This is what the Normans did when they invaded England in 11th century: They conquered the country and imposed their rules.
In other cases, a small community establishes a moral framework, and everybody who joins the community then becomes subject to that framework. For example, a country that wishes to join the European Union is expected to follow the laws that the other members have already put in place. Similarly, utopian societies (such as the New Harmony movement) usually start off as small communities, and everyone who joins is expected the follow the rules. The same applies to organized crime gangs (such as the Mafia) or to associations (such as golf clubs): people who join have to follow the rules that are already in place.
One can also become subject to a moral framework by being born into a society of subjects. Children of slaves, for example, were traditionally regarded as slaves as well. Children who are born in a country and granted citizenship automatically become subject to its law. Children who are born into a religious community usually become members of that religious community, and thus subjects to its moral framework.
GovernmentsSome moral frameworks are local to a specific organization or group of people. Others apply to an entire country. These are legal frameworks or laws. To safeguard these laws, and to execute the punishments in case of non-respect, people have established governments. These not just implement the law, but also provide social services, organize the education, provide military protection, and serve a range of other functions. To finance this work, governments collect taxes from their citizens. A common maxim is that the government has the monopoly on violence, i.e., the laws and the government are the only legitimate use of force. Today, there are around 200 independent national governments in the world. Some of them are headed by a monarch, others by an autocrat, a president, or a chancellor.
In several countries and cultures, the government takes a primordinal rule in the life of every citizen. In these systems, the citizens are called to serve the king or country. This view was particularly prevalent in medieval Europe. The Enlightenment challenged this view: It held that governments exist to serve their people, not people to serve their governments. The Enlightenment thinkers argued that people have established governments as a mere means to an end: to provide services that they, as individuals, could not effectively provide themselves. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: It is a government by the people for the people. It is thus, in the enlightened view, the right of the people to establish, change, or abolish their government. This is today also the view of Humanism.
Harm-based frameworksThere are different ways to define moral frameworks. One way is to base the framework on the notion of harm. Such a framework allows everything that does not cause harm to someone else. This idea is known as the harm principle, which was given its fullest articulation by John Stuart Mill. Harm can be injury, damage to property, an insult, or anything else that is considered harmful to a person. The exact details of what constitutes harm are left to the moral framework. The only uniting characteristics of these frameworks is that they will permit everything that does not impact others. For example, harm-based frameworks typically do not condemn gay love or apostasy — simply because these things have only limited impact on other people (if any at all).
An important component of harm-based frameworks is consent: An action is not considered harmful if it happens with the consent of the concerned people. For example, if you choose to have an earring hole, then the injury that is inflicted upon you (i.e. piercing your flesh without anesthesia) is not considered harmful. This principle is known as Volenti non fit injuria . This principle includes the permission to do harm to yourself. For example, you can decide to smoke if you wish. This harms you but is your choice. This liberty is known as the principle of self-ownership . Harm-based moral frameworks typically establish exceptions to this principle: Children and the mentally ill are usually considered unable to consent to harm. (As for smoking, it can actually cause harm to others: other people inhale the smoke, and they also shoulder the higher load on the social security fund that is caused by smokers.)
Why would someone opt for a harm-based framework and not for another possible framework? The reason is that if someone does something that does not harm anybody, then most people do not care (unless they are driven by a universalist ideology). In this view, a harm-based system is the one that requires least effort from everybody, while still protecting what people care about.
Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These bounds may be determined only by Law.
Egalitarian frameworksThere are different ways to define moral frameworks. Another popular guiding principle is equality: The framework should give equal rights to everybody. This is the law of equal liberty, and it was first fully formulated by Herbert Spencer.
The law of equal liberty was not always universally accepted. For example, several societies had slaves, and slaves do not have the same rights as free people. In the same vein, all major religions traditionally gave less rights to women.
However, today most people in the Western world agree on the principle of equal rights. The reason is simple: If we give different rights to different people, then we cannot guarantee that we (or our children, friends, family, etc.) are in the group with the best rights. So we better give the same rights to everybody. John Rawls makes this point as follows: A just society is a society in which you would agree to be incarnated as a random citizen — without knowing whether you would be a woman, a man, a child, a white or a black person. In such a scenario you would want that society to give equal rights to everyone.
Empathy may also play a role: We suffer if other people suffer. Therefore, many people believe that we must protect other people in the same way that we protect ourselves. The result is a system that gives the same rights to everybody. Moral frameworks that implement the same rights for everybody are called egalitarian.
Egalitarian moral frameworks do not postulate that all people would be equal. Different people, and different groups of people, may have different characteristics, interests, possessions, or abilities: Women can give birth, while men can’t; conservative people may or may not prefer more traditional gender roles; the rich may or may not own more cars or be generally healthier than the poor. The only thing that matters for an egalitarian framework is that all people have the same rights before the law.
Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.
Liberal moral frameworksA liberal moral framework is a moral framework that is both harm-based and egalitarian. This means the system gives the same rights and duties to everyone, independent of profession, salary, social status, religion, gender, or ethnic group. It prohibits what causes harm to another being and permits everything else.
A liberal moral framework is motivated by two desires: First, the desire to give equal rights to everybody. If we give different rights to different people, we cannot guarantee that we (or our children, friends, family, etc.) are in the group of those with the best rights. So we better give the same rights to everybody. This idea is widely accepted today in the West, but it has not always been, and it is still not in large parts of the world. The second motivation is the desire to limit the liberty of someone only when that would cause harm to someone else. If we put these two desires together, we arrive at a liberal moral framework. Such a framework gives the maximal freedom to everybody, and restricts it only where the freedom of someone else begins. Thus, it offers a minimalist stable equilibrium, in the sense that whenever we change something, someone will lose out and thus complain.
Punishing in frameworksWe have seen that a pact can work only if breaches of the pact are punished. Typically, such a punishment has several goals:
- The goal of incapacitation is to prevent the offender from committing another breach of the pact. In ancient times (and still in some modern jurisdictions), incapacitation could take the form of amputation or the death penalty. In most modern jurisdictions, incapacitation rather takes the form of prison sentences.
- Rehabilitation aims to re-educate the offenders, so that they are less likely to breach rules in the future.
- Deterrence aims to discourage other people from breaching the rules as well. In older times, deterrence was often achieved by brutal public punishments, and in some countries, it still is. Most legislation today aims at a consistent and fair punishment rather than at a brutal one. The current scholarly opinion is that the certainty of being caught is more effective as a deterrent than the punishment itself 7.
- Retribution is the idea that offenders have to suffer proportionally to the crime they committed. Retribution can lead to the feeling that “justice has been done” in the victim and in society.
Different legal systems implement different punishments. There are two main philosophies: the retributive approach aims to inflict harm on the perpetrators, with the idea that this harm makes up for the harm they caused. The consequentialist approach is focused solely on preventing future breaches of the pact — by the perpetrator or by others.
Humanism, the particular moral philosophy that this book advocates, is in the consequentialist camp. It sees punishment mainly as a necessary means to prevent future offenses — both by the perpetrator and by someone else. Thus, punishment should aim mainly at incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Humanism abhors violence, and thus generally excludes corporal punishments. The death penalty, likewise, is rejected by Humanists, mainly because human judgements can err, and the death penalty allows no reversal of a decision. Thus, Humanist legal systems resort mainly to fines, prison sentences, and re-education. We will later elaborate how this view on punishments goes hand in hand with the naturalistic view of the human brain that this book proposes.
Apart from a punishment, most moral systems stipulate that the offenders have to compensate the harm that they induced. This can mean giving back stolen goods, giving the victim the possibility to reply to an insult, covering the cost of a hospital stay, or paying a monetary figure. Furthermore, the victim has to be compensated for the very fact of having been harmed, for example in the form of an apology or a monetary amount to that end. In summary, we thus have (1) a compensation that depends on the damage, (2) an apology that is tailored to the victim, and (3) a punishment that is tailored to the perpetrator 8.
Early legal frameworksMoral frameworks are lists of do’s and don’ts. People develop such frameworks to create the basis for a working society. They enforce such frameworks by education and punishments. Over time, human societies developed different moral frameworks.
One of the first moral rules was probably “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”. This rule is called the Golden Rule and has been around since antiquity . It appeared in all major philosophical schools of Ancient China around 2000 BCE: Mohism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It also appears in the Ancient Egyptian concept of Maat, which was developed around the same time. Ancient Greece developed the same principle around 600 BCE. It can also be found in Ancient Rome and in India. It appears in all of today’s major religions.
But humanity also developed more sophisticated moral frameworks. The first legal framework of recorded history is the Code of Urukagina, from around 2300 BCE. It was decreed by King Urukagina, who was the ruler of a city in what is Iraq today. The code exempted widows and orphans from taxes, compelled the city to pay funeral expenses, and decreed that if a poor man does not wish to sell, the powerful man cannot force him to do so. It also took measures against usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and kidnapping. It also regulated the salary, rights, and the duties of priests.
The oldest legal framework that has survived intact is the Code of Ur-Nammu. It was developed in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) around 2000 BCE. The code contains very detailed instructions in the form of IF...THEN... statements, which tell us which punishment shall be given for which crime. The system divided people into free men and slaves, and regulates the rights and duties of each of them. Interestingly, the code institutes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage, as opposed to the later “eye for an eye” principle of Babylonian (and Jewish) law. Murder, robbery, adultery and rape were capital offenses. The entire code has been deciphered 9.
Several other codes from this region were developed. The Laws of Eshnunna date to 1930 BCE. They regulate theft, sexual offenses, injuries, property seizure, and damages by oxen. The laws mostly prescribe monetary compensation and seem to not involve the death penalty . The Laws of Lipit-Ishtar date to around 1870 BCE. They regulate heritage, the rights of slaves, rental of goods, and neighborhood quarrels . One of the most famous is the Code of Hammurabi, which dates to around 1772 BCE (pictured right). It consists of 282 laws which regulate contracts, liability for quality of work, military service, and household and family relationships such as inheritance, divorce, paternity and sexual behavior. It established the presumption of innocence and it also suggests that both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence when resolving a dispute . It also established the “eye for an eye” principle, which limits the revenge extracted for wrongdoing to the equivalent of the damage done by the deed. All of these legal systems are grouped together as the Babylonian Law . Babylonian Law influenced Assyrian Law (from 1075 BCE), which took up many concepts from previous systems but had rather brutal punishments. The Law of Moses dates from 900 BCE, and later became the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament. It contains the Ten Commandments, and laws on purity, feasts, sacrifices, and priesthood. Most codes developed around this time in this region invoke divine authority, and command the reader to abide by them. They are usually imposed or enacted in the name of a king.
What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.
That is the whole Law; the rest is just commentary.
Other early legal frameworksLegal codes also emerged outside the Near East. The Hittite lived in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and established their laws around 1600 BCE. Among other things, they regulated sacral matters, contracts and prices, and marital relationships. The Code of the Nesilim was used simultaneously in the same region. It contains 200 articles . Draco was the first known leader in ancient Greece who developed a legal code (around 700 BCE). His laws were so brutal that we still use the word “draconian” to refer to brutal punishments. The death penalty was the punishment even for minor offences such as stealing a cabbage. But the law also established elections to a council. This would lay the ground for the later development of the Greek democracy. The Romans developed their legal code in 451 BCE in the form of the Twelve Tables. Reportedly, the Romans sent a delegation to Greece to study their legal systems. Then they came up with their own code and gave it to every citizen for feedback. After public discussion, the law was then established. It was a very detailed code, which (in its later variants) became the basis of many modern legal systems.
In China, legal codes were developed around 500 BCE. Some of them survive inscribed on cauldrons and bamboo. They regulated the administration of the state as well as punishments for offenses. The laws became very sophisticated, culminating in the Tang Code of 624 CE. It contained 500 sections of law compiled into 12 volumes. It established a police, courts, magistrates, judges, and a hierarchy of courts. Its later variants were used in China until 1911 when the last imperial dynasty fell.
In India, the Code of Manu was developed around 200 BCE in India. It is ascribed to Manu, the supposed “first man”. The original version consisted of 1000 chapters. It contains a religious explanation for the origin of the world, religious rites, laws, social norms, and a description of the caste system.
As we see, humanity came up with comprehensive legal frameworks in different regions of the world. Some law systems influenced each other. Others developed independently.
Later legal frameworksLegal systems are moral frameworks that are enforced by governments. Humanity developed different legal systems in different parts of the world. Some of the most dominant ones gave rise to today’s legal systems. The most prominent ones are:
- Roman law
- Roman law regulated all aspects of the Roman empire, from public law to private law and court procedures. It was in effect from around 400 BCE to 1400 CE in much of Europe, and in some countries even until the 19th or 20th century.
- Civil Law
- Civil Law is a law system based on Roman law. In Civil Law, the jurisdiction is based on a collection of written laws. Civil Law is the basis of the French Napoleonic Code and the German law system, and influenced the legal systems of roughly half of the world’s countries.
- Common Law
- Common Law is based on precedents. It gives more importance to preceding similar law cases than to written law. Through British influence, Common Law became the basis for the legal systems of nearly all countries that did not follow Civil Law. Together, both law systems cover nearly all of the world’s countries apart from those that implement Islamic law.
- Islamic Law
- Islamic Law (also known as Sharia) is a system of moral codes that are based on the Quran and the teachings of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. It emerged around 570 CE. It regulates crime, politics, and economics, as well as personal matters such as sexual intercourse, hygiene, diet, prayer, everyday etiquette, and fasting. In different variants, and to different extents, the law is today used in several Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Human RightsHuman Rights are guidelines for national laws, i.e., a moral framework for laws. The roots of Human Rights lie in several older frameworks: the English Magna Carta (1215 CE), the English Bill of Rights (1689 CE), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789 CE), and the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution (1791 CE). After the Second World War (1945), the international community began to seriously consider drafting a global legal framework. In 1948, the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was issued by the United Nations.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights stipulate that national laws should respect the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, as well as electoral rights and rights to due process and fair trial 10. They also contain economic, social, and cultural rights, such as labor rights and the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. Human Rights abolish slavery, guarantee equality before the law, prohibit torture, and establish the presumption of innocence.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of principles for national laws and not a legally binding document or enforceable law. In Europe, the declaration became the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, in turn, is directly applicable law. It is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights. On the international scene, the Declaration became the basis of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These were signed into national law by the large majority of countries in the world, thus making them at least nominally binding nearly all over the world. Several countries have made reservations to the convention. This is the case most notably for the United States and some Muslim countries. Still, the Declaration is the de facto yardstick for most legal systems.
It’s better to have a good ideal and fail to live up to it,
rather than to have a bad ideal and succeed with it.
Diversity in lawsThe theory of moral statements proposed by this chapter suggests that moral statements are completely subjective. Any behavior can be labeled as “wrong”, no matter whether there is any harm done or not. And indeed, different times, cultures, societies, and sub-societies have developed different moral rules. For example:
- Today, most cultures shun slavery. However, slavery was completely normal in large parts of the world until well into the 18th century. The ancient Romans and Greeks had slaves; monasteries and popes had slaves; Arabs had slaves; and American farm owners had slaves. In some countries, slavery was abolished only in the 20th century. In Mauritania, for example, it was not a crime to own slaves until 2007.
- Gay love has variously been labeled as morally bad or as morally acceptable. It was acceptable and to some degree even institutionalized in the ancient Greek states. It was largely shunned in the Western world with the rise of Christianity and Islam. Recently, it became acceptable again in some Western countries, to a degree that gay marriage is permitted in several locales. In other countries, homosexuality carries the death penalty.
- Capital punishment
- The death penalty is another example of a controversial moral question. Capital punishment is illegal in most countries, but legal in others. In the US, some states implement it, while others declare it illegal.
- Abortion was allowed in early Christianity and Islam, but is now prohibited in most mainstream interpretations of these religions. Liberal countries typically allow abortion under some conditions. Other countries consider it murder.
- Theft is a crime in most countries. However, we can well imagine a society without the concept of property and hence without the concept of theft. Some sub-societies implemented this philosophy, for example the Hutterites or the New Harmony movement.
- The practice is illegal in some countries, but legal in others. In some countries, prostitutes have to pay taxes.
- Other practices
- Sex before marriage, drinking alcohol, smoking, and gambling are all behaviors that are considered normal in some parts of the world and inherently sinful in others.
Despite this diversity, there could be moral principles that all societies share. For example, most societies would probably consider it immoral to feed babies into a blender. This book does not say that such absolute moral principles cannot exist. Identifying such principles could actually be beneficial to the Humanist cause. At the same time, we will not presume such universal principles in what follows.
Artifacts of the lawLaws are moral frameworks that are enforced by governments. Different law systems have been developed over time, and these can be quite diverse in what they consider legal.
There is no objective reason why something has to be legal or illegal. Furthermore, laws may be enacted with a purpose that later becomes obsolete. At the same time, humans are very accustomed to following laws no matter whether these laws are reasonable or not. Finally, it requires effort to repeal laws, and this effort is not always made. This has led to systems with very bizarre laws. Some of them are listed here:
- In the EU, the shape of a banana is prescribed by law 11.
- In France, you can marry a dead person under exceptional circumstances 12.
- Similarly, an uncle can marry his niece if the president of France is OK with it 13.
- In France, women were allowed to wear trousers only in 2013
- In Germany, public dancing is prohibited on certain holidays .
- In North Carolina, statute 14-309.8 says that a bingo game may not last more than 5 hours 14.
- Likewise in North Carolina, it is unlawful to consume or sell alcohol in any room where a bingo game is being conducted 15.
- In Wisconsin, cheese has to be delicious, or at least “highly pleasing” 15.
- In Georgia/US, it’s forbidden to eat fried chicken with a knife and fork 15.
- In Louisiana, it is illegal to take someone else’s crawfish, punishable by up to 10 years in prison 15.
- In Maryland, it’s illegal to swear in public 15.
- In Hawaii, billboards are outlawed 16.
- In Kentucky, every legislator, public officer, and lawyer must take an oath stating that they have not fought a duel with deadly weapons 16.
- In Maryland, pretending to forecast or foretell the future of another by cards, palm reading or any other scheme is a misdemeanor 16.
- In New Jersey, it is illegal to wear a bullet-proof vest while carrying out a grave criminal act 16.
- In New Mexico, idiots could not vote in most elections. The word was historically used to describe someone mentally disabled or with an IQ below 30, and the law was repealed in 2016 16.
- The Oklahoma statute affirms that “that there exists an international Communist conspiracy” committed to overthrowing the US government 16.
- In Texas, people wishing to run for office must acknowledge the “Supreme Being”. Otherwise, they could be subjected to religious tests 16.
- In Virginia, sex is completed banned except for married couples 16.
- In Britain, you may not die in Parliament 17.
- In Britain, it is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the monarch’s head upside down on an envelope 17.
- In London/Britain, a pregnant woman can relieve herself anywhere she wants — including in a policeman’s helmet 17.
- In the Netherlands, it is legal to smoke cannabis in coffee shops, but illegal to smoke tobacco 18.
- In Swaziland, in an effort to combat AIDS, young girls were not allowed to have sex for 5 years and had to wear tassels as sign of their chastity 19.
- Saudi Arabia prohibits alcoholic beverages, and, until 2018, the public exhibition of films.
- Again in Saudi Arabia, women have cover every part of their body other than hands and eyes.
The rule of lawThe law is a moral framework that is enforced by a government. Independent of the actual laws, such enforcement can be more effective or less effective. For example, in some countries, the arm of the law does not reach the remote regions. Crimes basically go unpunished there, and criminal gangs or militia have taken root. In some countries, criminals can bribe the judges or police and get free. In others, the law is vague, and allows members of the ruling class or the nobility to interpret the rules in their interest. In such places, the law has not much value.
There are other countries where the laws are transparent, clear, and enforced coherently. An independent court system guarantees that a claimant gets their redress, no matter who they are. In such places, the citizen knows that whoever transgresses the rules gets punished. This is very useful for enforcing contracts. If someone does not honor a contract, the other person can go to court and ask for it to be enforced. If the system works well, the claimant will get their compensation in a few months' time. Contracts are the basis of any commercial activity — be it trading, sharing work, or specializing in certain tasks. If I can be sure that you will honor a contract, I will work for you, buy your goods, or sell you mine.
The well-functioning of such a system is called “the rule of law”. Technically, the rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are (1) publicly promulgated, (2) equally enforced, (3) independently adjudicated, and (4) consistent with international human rights principles20. The rule of law means that laws are always forward-looking, never retroactive. They must be accessible and intelligible by citizens so that they can adjust their behavior accordingly. Laws must also be sufficiently precise so as not to leave room for arbitrary application by government.
Countries that uphold the rule of law provide better conditions for economic activity, and they are thus generally richer. This does not mean that the laws would be “good” in any sense. It just means that people can rely on them. For example, jihadists in the Sahel and in Afghanistan are known to enforce the law better than the corrupt secular governments in these regions 21. Although these laws are not compatible with the Human Rights, they offer legal security that some people admire.
Freedom of speechFreedom of speech is the right of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. Closely related to this concept are the freedom of expression (seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used) and freedom of thought (holding or considering a fact, viewpoint, or thought), and freedom of belief (adhering to, renouncing, or changing one’s religion).
Freedom of expression is a basic Human Right. The UN Declaration says: "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference [and] everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of their choice.” 10 And yet, this right usually has limitations: It would be disastrous, for example, if people were allowed to scream “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing everyone to leave in fear, possibly stampeding people. In this spirit, governments typically restrict freedom of speech, for respect of the rights or reputation of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals.
There is thus a trade-off to be found between the freedom of expression on one hand, and the necessary restrictions on the other. In this trade-off, liberal moral frameworks, and Humanism in particular, tend to be on the liberal end of the spectrum. That is, they tend to prohibit mainly what causes immediate harm to others: People should not insult others, assert as facts claims that are provably false, threaten others, expose other people’s private information, or misuse intellectual property. However, it must be possible to debate and criticise religions22, governments, political parties, and ideologies. Moreover, there shall be no censorship, i.e., it shall be possible to legally attack a piece of information only after it has been published, and not to suppress it upfront.
The reason for this position is that Humanism aims for human well-being. Humanism holds that a society can serve that goal better if its choices are informed by the truth. The truth, in turn, is more likely to be discovered when a society can conceive, ponder, discuss, and criticize different points of view. Bad ideas are best defeated by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence them or wishing them away 23. Hence, the reasoning goes, only through debate a society can find out which path is the best in the pursuit of human well-being.
Humanists hold that if a system is good, then it will withstand any debate by its own virtue. Thus, if a system prohibits criticism, then, to a Humanist, this can mean only that the system is not the best in the pursuit of human well-being. And if we are not allowed to debate that system, we cannot to find out that the system is not good, let alone change it for the better. The abolition of the freedom of expression acts like a trap: While it is always possible to debate the limits of free speech in a country that allows free speech, it is usually no longer possible to debate the introduction of free speech in a country that has abolished it. History has plenty of examples, including Stalinism and Nazism. Hence, Humanism holds, we should care about freedom of expression while we still can.
Don’t like free speech?
And wanna have the right to say it aloud?
Universality of moral frameworksSome moral frameworks are local to an association, group of people, or country. Others assert universal validity for all humans. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, for example, declares that all people of all creeds and nations shall have certain rights. Some religions, too, aspire to reach out to all of humanity, most notably Islam and Christianity. This is not the case for all religions: Hinduism and Judaism, for example, correlate strongly with an ethnicity, and have no aspirations to reach out to all of humanity.
When a moral framework aspires validity for all of humanity, we have to ask how this feat can be achieved. In the past, Christianity and Islam have conquered foreign lands by force. The United Nations, too, can intervene with military force: The United Nations Charter gives the United Nations Security Council the power and responsibility to take collective action to maintain international peace and security. More controversially, NATO forces or the United States have intervened in other countries with the goal to establish peace there — often with disastrous consequences.
Humanists in particular have to answer the question of how they want to achieve that all people benefit from Human Rights. What should we do if some country mistreats its citizens? This is a difficult question with no definite answer. This book advocates a diplomatic path: Countries should lead by example, expose Human Rights violations both at home and abroad, and resist any attempts to weaken Human Rights at the international level. Military intervention, however, should happen only with approval from the international community.
The future of lawsMost people in the Western world roughly subscribe to the values enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. However, not all contemporary societies share these values. And most societies did not share these values 1000 years ago.
In the future, values might evolve further. It is possible, for example, that animal rights will become more prominent in the next decades. It is also possible that our understanding of intellectual property will be redefined in the light of digital media. Laws regarding marriage will likely evolve too. Many countries will likely become more open to same-sex relationships, and could in the future permit even other types of relationships. The death penalty may become completely outlawed.
A fundamental flaw in the UN Charter, which guarantees people the right to self-governance 24 but deprives them of any means to achieve it when the host country objects, might come under scrutiny again. A right to UN-administered referendums for independence (with some large threshold for independence, say 60%) could address conflicts in Palestine, Scotland, Quebec, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Catalonia, Corsica, Northern Ireland, Yemen, Western Sahara, Crimea, and China.
We might also have to deal with new inventions. What happens for example if we are able to grow animals in the lab? What happens if we can grow humans? How do we define the rights of a person who has been cloned from another person? What happens if robots become intelligent? All of these questions show that moral frameworks will need to be developed continuously in order to keep up with the pace of change in society.
The men of the future will yet fight their way to many a liberty that we do not even miss.
Morality and Atheism
DemystificationWhat is right and what is wrong has long been a philosophical conundrum. We tend to believe that certain behaviors have an innate quality of being bad or being good. This clashes with the fact that the animal kingdom does not care at all about right and wrong. It also clashes with the fact that different societies make different moral choices. Religions teach us that the gods determine what is good and what is bad and yet different gods say different things. In all of this, we are always looking for the intrinsic quality that makes a behavior “good”. The fact that we are never able to nail it down gives the question a mystical aura.
For this book, the answer to the question is quite plain: “Good” is whatever we define it to be. Goodness is not something absolute or intrinsic. It is a subjective label that we attach to behaviors. There is no innate, mystic or metaphysical ethical quality that attaches to certain actions. Laws exist not because there is an inherent justice in this world, but because humans have developed norms and enforce them. They have developed norms not out of an innate love for justice, but because they need norms to establish a stable society. They want a stable society not out of idealism, but because a stable society caters best to the desire to survive and to take interest in the well-being of others. People have these desires not because some god decreed them, but because natural selection favored those species that had these desires. People follow laws not because of a universal moral compulsion to do so, but because of biological, social, pragmatic, and psychological factors.
Don’t get too caught up in the symbolism of “the court” as a place where justice prevails and the bad are punished. The courthouse itself is a building, nothing more and nothing less.
What is the link with atheism?This chapter has discussed how humans created their own moral rules. How does this relate to atheism?
Atheism is the disbelief in supernatural beings. It follows that moral rules cannot come from the gods. Hence, the most popular opinion among atheists is that the moral rules came from people. This chapter has outlined one way in which this might have happened.
Although we know what atheists think about the origin of moral rules, we still do not know what moral rules atheists follow. In fact, we cannot say what moral rules atheists follow, because atheism is not an organized movement. Different atheists follow different moral rules.
However, we can talk about one particular type of atheism — Humanism. Humanism says that Human Rights should be the basis of laws and government. Humanism also says that moral frameworks should be harm-based and egalitarian.
And I come to the conclusion that a society that was honest about its perils was better than one that denied its citizens the knowledge and the preparation to fend off their approach.
An examplar moral frameworkHumanism says that moral frameworks should be harm-based and egalitarian. Humanists believe we should prohibit what causes harm to others but not prohibit anything else, and we should have the same rules for everyone.
It remains to define what exactly “harm” is. This is a task for society, as the understanding of “harm” changes over time and has to be adapted to new technologies. However, here is a list of things that are typically considered harmful:
- Physical damages
- Injury: Some person or animal suffers bodily harm.
- Killing: Some person or animal gets killed.
- Sexual assault: Someone endures undesired sexual contact.
- Property violation: Somebody’s property is affected.
- Trespass: Something or someone trespasses on somebody else’s territory.
- Obstruction: Someone is forced to do something or prevented from doing something.
- Disturbance: Someone causes repeated or extreme noise, smell, etc.
- Harassment: An offense (even if minor) is committed repeatedly, in particular against a dependent person.
- Non-physical damages
- Lying: Someone says something that is not true.
- Threat: Someone threatens somebody else with harm.
- Insult: Someone says something about someone else that is (1) not provably true and (2) pejorative.
- Sabotage: Someone disturbs the working of a machine.
- Graphic violence: Suffering is described in disturbing detail, in particular through images or video (except for educational, informative, or activist purposes).
- Intellectual Theft: Intellectual property is used in a way that is not permitted by the author.
- Privacy violation: Information about a person is obtained by (1) causing damage or (2) using illicit technical means.
- Exposure: Embarrassing information is shared.
- Disclosure: Personally identifying information is made public.
- Damages caused by non-action
- Missing credit: Intellectual property is used without giving due credit.
- Denial of assistance: Someone suffers harm while someone else just stands by.
- Dereliction: A child is not given the basic conditions for a proper upbringing.
A simple Humanist moral framework would prohibit the above and permit everything else. If everyone just followed these simple rules, the world would be (according to Humanists) a much better place.
My life and limb and liberty,
my property and privacy,
the works I make creatively,
my public credibility,
your truthfulness, tranquility —
that is what you shall grant to me
and I shall grant the same to thee.
ResponsibilityIn the theory of moral values put forward in this book, moral rules are regulations of behavior that humans establish in order to make their society work. The rules are enforced by punishment and education, and can be imposed by different groups in different ways. When the rules are enforced by a government, we call the moral rules “laws”.
In this view of things, humans are the primordial basis for morality: Humans define the moral rules in the first place. Humans follow the laws, they defend them, they hand them down to the next generation, and they change them. Humans can define any rules they want: they can introduce or abolish slavery, they can establish or abolish tyrannies, and they can define the shape of legal bananas.
As it turns out, with this freedom also comes responsibility (in the following sense): How we structure our society is completely up to us. We cannot say that humans are the victims of the rules that govern them, because it was humans who made these rules in the first place — either by consensus or not. One way or another, it is always humans who are responsible for the laws.
There once was a time in America when no woman could vote. Yet, somehow, even though women could not vote, they all have the right to vote today. How did that happen?
There was once a time in America where the large majority of people smoked cigarettes. Smoking was allowed everywhere — even on airplanes and in public restrooms. Yet today, smoking is banned in most public spaces, including airplanes. How did that happen?
It was not God who reached down and made these laws. It was people who decided to make these laws.
Arbitrary rules are horrible!The theory of moral frameworks in this book essentially says that humans can define any laws or moral codes that they want. But would such a world not be completely merciless and ungovernable? Wouldn’t it be horrible if there were no absolute moral rules? Is there nothing that prohibits us from establishing slavery, dictatorships, or suppression?
The answer to all of these questions is “yes”. Indeed, humans can define any rules that they wish. Here, “can” is to be understood in the sense of “are able to”. Humans are able to define and enforce any rules they want. People have established rules that guarantee personal liberty, that enforce slavery, that abolish slavery, that require regular prayers, or that prohibit dying in parliament. It is just a fact that humans establish arbitrary rules, and since they do, it follows that they are able to.
What we consider the standard of law today was completely different just 100 years ago. For example, women were not allowed to open a bank account as recently as 1960. It follows that what we consider lawful today may be completely different in 100 years from now. Witness the growing acceptance of gay marriage, the creeping abolishment of the death penalty, or the increasing concern over the treatment of animals. These are debatable topics nowadays, but in 100 years’ time, people will look back at some of our current laws in horror — much like we look back at the medieval laws with horror.
Of course it’s perfectly understandable that the majority of people think their laws are the “right” ones. Those same people do not imagine that their laws are immoral in the view of other societies, or that their laws will be considered obsolete in 2000 years from now. But history shows that this is what happens. Had these people been slave holders a few hundred years back, they would have considered the abolition of slavery an outrageous idea that goes against the law of nature. If that view is wrong in today’s terms, there is no reason to assume that today’s view is right in tomorrow’s terms. Different societies and different times make different laws. The fact that people are unhappy about this does not make it less true.
But arbitrary rules are bad!While people establish arbitrary rules, the question remains whether this is “good”.
A behavior is never good or bad by itself. We need a moral framework to judge a behavior. Let us take the UN Declaration on Human Rights for this purpose. Is it good, according to the Declaration, that people establish arbitrary rules? The Declaration sets out certain limits for laws. For example, it says that no law may be approved that condones torture. Hence, the fact that people establish arbitrary rules (which may include torture) is “bad” according to the Declaration. Since Human Rights are part of Humanism, the particular brand of atheism promoted in this book, Humanists find arbitrary rules bad as well. Then again, the UN Declaration is itself an arbitrary point of reference. Furthermore, even if we agreed that arbitrary rules are bad, this would not prevent people from establishing them.
There are absolute rules!Some moral rules appear so natural that we have a tendency to assume that they are innate.
Indeed, there may be some behaviors that are innate. For example, a general aversion to suicide is probably an innate behavior. This, however, does not mean that suicide would be immoral in general. There are societies that allow suicide and others that disallow it. Love of kin likewise seems to be innate. Then again, in some cases the law may require us to go against our kin (e.g., turning in a criminal family member). Empathy may be a general innate trait. However, we mostly agree that criminals should be punished even if the punishment causes harm to the criminal. Punishment may be a universal constant. Then again, it is hardly a moral value in itself if we cannot say which behaviors should be punished.
Many rules that we hold dear have been violated by some society in modern times or in history. Even Human Rights, a supposedly universal catalog of laws, are hotly contested and nowhere near universal implementation .
This is not to say that there cannot be universal rules. Maybe there are some that we have not discovered yet, or there will be some one day when people agree on them. If such rules ever become apparent, the corresponding moral statements in the sense of this chapter can be updated to say “murder is morally wrong in the universal rule system”, or even “murder is morally wrong”. However, the framework can model also rules that are subjective, and these are, until now, more prevalent.
People are not like animals!This book suggests that there are no absolute rules, and that people just make their own rules. But wouldn’t that mean that people behave just like animals — barbaric and brutal, caring only for their own interests?
And the answer is: Yes, they do. Throughout history, humans have exterminated each other in the most brutal forms of warfare, with no respect for the other group. They have tortured, murdered, and raped whatever was not their own clan. The Islamic State, for example, a 2014 terror group in Iraq, routinely killed the men in the conquered non-Muslim areas and raped the women. How is this different from a lion that takes over another lion’s realm by killing the male, killing the babies, and mating with the female lions?. The Bible actually tells us to do something very similar (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
Inside the group, however, human animals establish very strict rules. The Islamic State, for example, had very rigid rules of conduct within its community, which were rigorously enforced. Otherwise the group would not have functioned. In other words, the groups that did not have such rules were too weak and eventually were eradicated. Hence, all groups that we see today have these types of rules.
God gives us the rules!Many religious people believe that a certain moral system was established by God. Thus, this system would form an absolute moral truth.
Indeed, most ancient legal systems were said to come from the gods. The Babylonian Laws, for example, from 2000 BCE, usually stated in their preamble that they were designed and enforced by the gods. In India, the Law of Manu was assumed to be dictated by Brahma, the god of creation, to Manu, the first human. Manu recorded the words and taught them to his students. The Quran, the book that forms the basis of Sharia Law, is assumed to be dictated by the Abrahamic God to the Prophet Mohammed. In China, the emperors had a “Mandate from Heaven”, which gave them divine right to rule.
Starting with King Pepin the Short of the Franks, the kings of medieval Europe took their office by the grace of the Christian God. This is in tune with the Bible, which states that all government power stems from God (Romans 13:1–7). The medieval kings were absolute monarchs, meaning that that they could also make the law. Thus, medieval European laws were ultimately traced back to God. Today the monarchs of the following countries reign by their own account via “the grace of God”: Denmark, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom (and hence all Commonwealth countries).
In all of these cases, the legal systems derive or derived their authority from gods. Still, these legal systems vary widely. Behaviors that are prohibited in one society are allowed in another one — or in the same society at a different point in time. Thus, the reference to God does not make a moral system universal.
This is, of course, entirely consistent with the atheist world view: From an atheist point of view, the gods don’t exist. They are a creation of the human mind, and different cultures came up with different gods. Rulers of all times and cultures then ascribed their rules to their gods. This gave the rules divine authority, and fended off any questions and doubt. This does not make the rules (or, for that matter, the gods) any less of a human creation. It rather explains why rules, just like gods, vary across the cultures.
Imagine just for a minute that all criminal law would be declared void. If all the protection that remains were the religious belief of our co-citizens, then neither you nor I would dare just to cross the street. If, conversely, all religions were declared void from one day to the other, but the criminal laws remained in place, then you and I would still live our daily lives without too much preoccupation.
Where do the rules come from?This book says that there are no absolute divine rules. So then where do we get our moral rules from?
The answer to this question is very simple: It is us humans who develop and establish rules. Most of us have a basic trait of empathy, i.e., we abhor suffering in others. Most of us also have the desire to live in a stable and peaceful society. The easiest way to achieve this is to make pacts between us. Now what exactly constitutes “suffering”, a “peaceful society”, and a “good pact” is subjective. Our subjective view is shaped by what we learn from our parents, by what the society around us does, and by what we read or hear. Out of this mix, we build our moral frameworks.
People then start to impose these moral frameworks on others where they can. A sports club decides its charter and imposes it on its members. An elected local party imposes their values on the city. A criminal gang forces its values upon its members. An elected national party makes the laws for the country. A dictator dictates what laws his subjects must follow.
So, to answer the question, this is where we get our moral rules from: We make them ourselves, or we get them from the other people.
You know those parts of the Bible that are completely ridiculous? The bits about stoning adulterers to death, and not wearing mixed fibres and not working on a Sunday and so on? The bits that you refuse to take seriously even though you take other parts of that Bible completely seriously, and even though the book itself claims you must take ALL of it seriously?
Whatever part of your brain is responsible for working out that those parts of the Bible are safe to ignore — that’s where an atheist’s morals come from.
Why Human Rights?Humanism (and thus this book) are fierce defenders of Human Rights: Freedom of speech, prohibition of torture, abolition of slavery, equality before the law, and the right to fair trial are cornerstones of Humanist ethics.
However, as we have seen, the Human Rights are just an arbitrary moral framework, with no more intrinsic value than other frameworks. The question is then why Humanists adhere to this system and not to some other system.
Humanists cannot argue that their system would be given by a god. Nor can they argue that their system would be in any way “innate” (otherwise LGBT rights would have had to become innate very recently). There are some arguments to be made that humans in general abhor suffering, and that a moral framework that aims at reducing suffering thus serves this human desire best 4. There is also an argument to be made that countries that implement Human Rights generally succeed well in catering to the basic (and innate) human needs of safety and happiness. This success is due to a variety of factors, and Human Rights are just one of them 25. However, globally speaking, countries that implement Human Rights fare better than systems that focus on the importance of the clan or family, on a religion (as 26), on a ruler, or on government authority (as 27).
Beyond that, Humanists argue for Human Rights from the definition of their creed: Humanism believes in the equal worth of every human being, and aims at the fullest possible development of every individual. For such a personal development, the abolition of slavery, freedom of religion, the right to health, education, and an adequate standard of living are arguably productive. The general principle of basing the law on harm alone is likewise productive for individual development, as it extends the individual freedom to the maximum. The right to a fair trial (with, by extension, the right not to be tortured and the presumption of innocence) protects the individual from harm by the legal system. The belief in the equal dignity of every human (in the sense of the right to be valued and respected for one’s own sake, and to be treated ethically) leads to the principle of equality before the law, and more generally an egalitarian moral framework. The most forward-looking component of Human Rights is the right to challenge the status quo (freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, and electoral rights). This right is essential in the Humanist view, as human reasoning can err. If humans can, at every time point, be mistaken about how to best achieve the fullest possible development of every individual, then the right to challenge the status quo is the only means to achieve that goal on the long run.
Now all of these arguments are valid only if we strive, like Humanists, for the fullest possible development of every individual. We may assume that most people strive well for their own development, but why should they strive for the development of others? Here, Humanists argue that the development of others is in our own interest: Social pacts are based on reciprocity. We grant others what we want to be granted ourselves, so that they grant us what we need. Human Rights are designed to be such a pact not for a single society, but for humanity as a whole. Now why should we aim for Human Rights, and not for any other global system? The reason is that Human Rights target directly the goal of individual flourishing, without any intermediary or overriding goals (such as the glorification of a god, a religion, a nation, or a ruler), which add additional constraints, and on which it is thus harder to find global agreement. In this sense, Human Rights are a minimalist framework. And indeed, they are the framework that most countries agree on (at least nominally), and the same can be said of no other generalist moral framework.
In summary, Humanists, like all humans, have an innate need for protection, and a basic desire to avoid suffering in general. With their (likewise innate) ability to reason, they come to believe that Human Rights are an effective means to cater to these objectives. However, while all people share these objectives to some degree, not all of them arrive at the same conclusion. Human Rights are not an innate moral imperative, nor do they logically follow from the laws of nature. Nothing prevents people from putting a god above the well-being of humans. Nor are Human Rights absolute and perfect. They are merely an invitation that Humanists extend to people of all creeds and nations as a minimalist moral framework in the pursuit of the well-being of all of us.
What is morality anyway if we’re all just atoms?The biological view of the human holds that we are all just atoms. Everything that happens in our body is just chemical reactions — including our thoughts, wishes, feelings, and choices. In such a system, how can we even talk of morals, guilt, sin, and duties? And what sense does it make to punish someone for a chemical reaction in his brain that caused him to kill someone?
This is indeed a difficult question, and it is hotly debated in philosophy of law and philosophy of mind. When some man commits a crime, we usually ask whether he could have acted any differently. If that is the case, we ascribe his actions to his own decisions (his own free will), we call him morally responsible for his actions, we decide that he deserves punishment, and we administer it. The problem is that in such a system, we have to find out whether perpetrators are really free in their decisions. Mentally ill people, e.g., are not considered free in this sense. Nor are people under the influence of drugs. It is also known that a brain tumor can cause criminal behavior 28. A “heat of passion”, likewise, can act as a mitigating factor, since a man in rage is no longer considered the master of his own decisions. Thus, we already acknowledge that not everything that happens in the brain is our own free choice. There is still ample space for free will, to be sure, but the more we know about social factors, environmental factors, emotions, genes, hormones, cognitive biases, and the human brain, the smaller that space of the free decisions will become. If the naturalistic approach is right, then that space will eventually shrink to zero. There is just no room in the human brain for a small person who takes the decisions for us – there are only neurons, and these work by the laws of nature. There is, as Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen have argued, not a shred of scientific evidence to support the existence of causally effective processes in the mind or brain that violate the laws of physics 29.
The second problem with the approach is that it has to postulate the link between the responsibility for an action and the deserving of a punishment as a factum brutum: There is no logical reason why a man who killed another one out of his free will would deserve punishment. The idea that this punishment would somehow “make up” for his deed, or that this would somehow “neutralize” the evilness of it has been created by us humans. It exists merely in our minds.
In comes the naturalist stance: humans are essentially big machines whose decisions are dictated by the laws of nature. Then why should we punish the evildoer in this setting? The answer is quite plainly that punishing someone for a deed will reduce the probability that he (or, for that matter, someone else) repeats the deed. Of course, we cannot guarantee this effect, because human behavior is unpredictable in general. However, the theory “Punishment reduces the probability of a crime (as compared to no reaction at all)” is true, i.e., the percentage of people who commit a crime is lower when there is the threat of punishment. This is a validated theory that we can build about humans, just as we can build a validated theory about the working of an atom, the sun, or a coffee machine. If we establish a moral framework with the goal of preventing what that moral framework condemns, then it follows logically that we will want to reduce the probability that such condemnable acts happen in the future as well. As it so happens, the validated theory of punishments is a useful instrument for that purpose.
This approach to justice is called “consequentialist” (as opposed to the “retributionist” approach) 29. The consequentialist approach does not ask whether the perpetrator is really guilty in some ultimate sense. Rather, it asks what we have to do to make that person (and others) not offend again. What do we have to do to avoid that someone parks their car on the motorway again? We have to fine them. What do we have to do to avoid that someone who was under the influence of drugs reoffends? We have to get them off the drugs. What do we have to do to avoid that a serial killer who is convinced that he has to eradicate humanity reoffends? We might have to jail him for life. (The arguments that we can make against brutal punishments and the death penalty apply just as well here.) The consequentialist approach thus looks forward to future offenses, while the retributionist approach looks backward on the offense at hand. Nevertheless, the conclusions of the approaches coincide in most cases: Suppose that a messenger loses her letters in a river. If this happened because a bridge collapsed under her, the retributionist approach would resolve that the events unfolded independently of her free will and would not punish her. The consequentialist approach would concur, and would find that the safest method to avoid a repetition of this scenario is to fix the bridge. If the messenger instead threw her letters into the river, then the consequentialist approach would find that the best thing to do is to “fix” the messenger – by fining her or firing her. This is because this is the action that would most effectively avoid a repetition of this scenario.
The consequentialist approach thus sees humans as complex systems (machines if you wish) which we try to fix. That may appear inhumane. Yet we can argue that it is actually more humane than the retributionist approach. This is because for the consequentialist approach, punishment is not a moral imperative or a goal in itself. It is merely one out of several possible means to achieve a downstream objective. Thus, different from the retributionist approach, the consequentialist approach draws no comfort from the suffering of the perpetrator. As Sam Harris has argued: If we recognize that even the most “evil” or dangerous people in existence are, at root, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel 30. In this way, the consequentialist approach takes the emotional sting out of judicial decisions: The notions of wickedness, of moral responsibility, of deserving a punishment, of guilt, fault, and intention are not central metaphysical concepts to which we have to cater. Rather, they are auxiliary notions that humans have created to describe the likelihood that a perpetrator will reoffend. The consequentialist approach thus invites us to not get carried away by these concepts, but rather to concentrate on the main raison d'être of moral frameworks: that of avoiding future offenses. Thereby, the consequentialist approach takes an impersonal, goal-driven, and ultimately constructive view on justice.
That leaves the question why there are people who seek such justice in the first place, given that everyone is equally driven by the laws of nature in their heads. The answer is that we have all been equipped by natural selection with certain innate impulses – most notably the desire to stay alive, the avoidance of suffering, and the ability to empathize with the suffering of others. We have also been endowed (by the same benevolent agent) with the ability to reason, and the ability to act on the outcomes of that reasoning. Put these two together, and some humans come up with the idea of punishments. They act on this insight, and find that administrating punishments serves their goals. Therefore, humans punish offenders. Do they freely choose to do so? Not in the sense that they take decisions that are not determined by the laws of nature. But they condition their actions on the circumstances, and this is what appears as a “choice” to the observer. On the receiving side, the perpetrator builds the theory that if he offends, he is punished. Every punishment (also that of other offenders) is a training datapoint to that effect in his stream of perceptions. His built-in desire to avoid suffering, together with his own ability to reason, will then conduct him to avoid offending again.
No man treats a motorcar as foolishly as he treats another human being. When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behavior to sin; he does not say, “you are a wicked motorcar, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go”. Rather, he attempts to find out what is wrong and to set it right.
- Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2014
- Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, 2006
- Rolf Dobelli: The Art of Thinking Clearly, 2013
- Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
- Matthew White: The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, 2011
- The Telegraph: “Revealed — Ten Commandments of the Mafia”, 2007-11-07
- National Institute of Justice: “Five Things About Deterrence”, 2016-06-05
- Fabian M. Suchanek: Thoughts on Ethics, 2021
- Wikipedia: “Code of Ur-Nammu”, 2021
- United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
- European Commission: “Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94 of 16 September 1994 laying down quality standards for bananas”, 1994-09-16
- Code Civil de la France / Article 171
- Code Civil de la France / Article 164
- Edward Snowden: Permanent Record, 2019
- Business Insider: “15 weird US laws you may be surprised to know exist”, 2019-09-16
- Business Insider: “The most ridiculous law in every state”, 2020-06-23
- Telegraph: “Don’t die in parliament — it’s the law”, 2008-04-12
- Telegraph: “Dutch cannabis smoker fined — for using tobacco”, 2008-09-24
- BBC: “Swazi king drops sex-ban tassels”, 2005-08-23
- United States Courts: “Overview - Rule of Law”, 2021
- The Economist: “After Afghanistan, where next for global jihad?”, 2021-08-28
- Humanists International: “End blasphemy laws”, 2019
- Harper’s Magazine: “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, 2020-07-07
- United Nations: United Nations Charter, 1945
- Fabian M. Suchanek: Why are poor countries poor?, 2019
- OIC: Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, 1990
- ASEAN: ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, 2013
- The Independent: “The man whose brain tumour turned him into a paedophile”, 2016-02-26
- Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen: “For The Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing And Everything”, in Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, 2011
- Sam Harris: Free Will, 2012