Chapter on Morality
IntroductionThe question of what is right and what is wrong is one of the oldest conundrums of humanity. This chapter offers a materialistic explication for the nature of morality and ethics. The chapter consists of the following sections:
- Instincts: Explains the basic instincts that play a role in moral behavior.
- Pacts: Explains how a human society organizes itself.
- Rules: Introduces the notions of moral rules and moral frameworks.
- Laws: Discusses how the law evolved.
- Morality and Atheism: Explains how atheists see morality.
- Questions: Treats objections to the claims made in this chapter.
SurvivalThe first aspect of morality is the behavior towards yourself. Why do you not just kill yourself?
Humans can indeed kill themselves. Now assume that there was a gene that would encourage an organism to kill itself. Obviously, this organism would produce fewer offspring than an organism that does not have this tendency. Thus, the self-destructive gene would have lesser chances of being passed on. If we scroll forward by some thousand generations, we will see that this gene will have completely disappeared. This is the principle of natural selection. It follows that any organism that is alive today is of the non-self-killing type. All species that exist today have a hard-wired desire to survive. This is simply a necessary requirement for having reached the presence.
This does not mean that organisms cannot or do not kill themselves. An individual mutation can make the drive to survive weaker in one individual. For humans, many more factors can play a role, including psychological, medical, economic, and social ones. The theory 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 love life and to fear death. 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 fear death. However, this is about the only moral component that we can find in animals. 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 chased means the fear of death, the pain of being killed — and a life destroyed. All carnivore existence continuously tortures other animals. Nature is 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 any other species — except if it is useful for themselves.
But the food chain is not the only source of cruelty. Some spider species eat not just their prey, but devore also their mates. This is because their mates do not serve any reproductive purpose any more, they are too weak to defend themselves, and they provide a valuable source of proteins. Hence, it is an evolutionary advantage to eat the mate. Hence, spiders that did it survived. Hence, spiders of this species today devour their mate — no matter whether humans consider this moral or not.
When lions take over a harem, they slaughter the entire population of baby lions in the group. This is cruel. However, it has a clear evolutionary advantage: It serves to eliminate all genes of the preceding alpha lion, and to make sure all offspring stems from the new lion. Again, no respect is shown, not even to animals of the 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. Again, the worm does not care at all for the life of the crustacean. Another type of parasites are roundworms. These live in the human intestines. They grow to a length of up to 35 cm (pictured right) and may cause lung diseases in the human. Again, the roundworm does not care at all for 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 eat their host slowly alive. Or take Malaria. This is a disease transmitted by mosquitos. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people die from it. Of course, the mosquito fly 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, in turn, does not care either whether the human dies. The virus just has to make sure that it is transmitted before the host dies. Here, “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, e.g., 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 (pictured). Cats do all of this apparently for fun. Curiosity and dexterity served them well throughout their existence. Pity for mice did not.
All of this shows us that there is no “ethic behavior” in nature. Nature is just 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 concept of morality in nature. However, certain species (and among them humans) share the concept of empathy: A basic tendency to dislike suffering by others.
Basic empathy has been observed in canines, felines, dolphins, primates, rats, mice, and 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 in the nylon thread proceeded to attempt to rescue their nest mates by sand digging, limb pulling, transporting sand away from the trapped ant, and when efforts remained unfruitful, began to attack the nylon thread itself; biting and pulling apart the threads. Empathy
To see why this makes sense, consider a species of animals that lives in couples or 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 exploit opportunities that cannot be exploited alone. 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. Hence, it will provide its services better. Thus, its members will produce more offspring, and ultimately outrun 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. But most of us abhor violence, and suffer when another human suffers. This trait exists at least on average. It is the basic trait of empathy.
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 Altruism. 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 “Careful! A lion!” (causing those who hear it to climb on a tree) (Y. N. Harari: Sapiens, p. 24). Such behavior 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, altruism actually makes happy. People feel happy if they help other people. That makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view: If helping makes you happy, you help more. Hence, societies with such happy helpers were more successful. Interestingly, research has also found that, vice versa, 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” Altruism.
Thus, altruism may ultimately not be so altruist at all. We would be altruist 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 a scientific point of view. Scientifically speaking, we are just observing a correlation between happiness and altruism. This correlation appears true in the sense of this book, and that is all we care about.
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 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 principle got written into our genes 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 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.
Love of kinshipWe have seen that some animal species (and humans in particular) respond to the suffering of others. Such behavior is independent of the particular use of that other individual, because the trait of empathy predates the cognitive ability to compute the prospective use of the other individual. However, empathy is not independent of kinship: Animals, including humans, show higher empathy towards individuals with whom they are genetically related. Ants, for example, rescue other ants that are trapped. However, they rescue only ants of the same nest (i.e., of the same “family”). Studies show that humans, too, show more empathy if the other person is of the same family. They show this behavior also if they just think that the other person is of the same family (e.g., because the photograph of the other person has been altered to resemble the study participant). This trait dates back at leat to the Neanderthals: Archeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps — evidence that they were cared for by their relatives [Y.N. Harari: Sapiens, p. 15].
From an evolutionary perspective, it may seem strange that individuals care more about their own family, because if a family member survives and produces offspring, this does not propagate one’s own genes. For example, why should a sister help a brother, given that the survival of the brother does not help the procreation of the sister? To see why this behavior makes sense, think about it from the perspective of the gene. Take a gene that induces empathy, and suppose that the brother and the sister received this gene from their parents. If the sister helps the brother survive, then there is one more person who propagates this empathy gene. Now take a brother and a sister who did not receive this empathy gene from their parents. Here, the sister will not help the brother. The brother dies, and there will be one less person to propagate the empathy gene. Now iterate this process, and you will find that the people with the empathy gene dominate those who do not have the gene.
We see here that the principle of evolution is not always restricted to the individual, but can concern an entire family.
Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible (Bibe / Luke 10:25–37)? How he helped the Jew, even though Jews and Samaritans despised each other? Now you know what? The good Samaritan was not a Christian! — He was a Samaritan Samaritans.
ReciprocityWe have seen that animals can show compassion to other animals of the same species, and that this compassion is stronger for animals of the same family. 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.
This is a very simple mechanism, also known as “tit for tat”, and humans use it, too. 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, which ensures you will profit from others’ spoils when your haul is less impressive. [Rolf Dobelli: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, chapter 6, translated by Nicky Griffin] Some societies have developed this concept into the notion of reputation. A good reputation basically means that a person reciprocates what others invest in them — no matter whether the compensation is immediate or not.
The concept can also be generalized. 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, the 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 concepts of empathy and love for kinship. 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 would probably run away. But then, you still have to hunt, and grow food, which is very hard to do when you are alone. Also, you could not even sleep at night, for fear of being surprised and slaughtered. So what do you do?
Here is a suggestion: You find another person who is in a similar situation as you. Then you make a deal: You don’t hurt that person, and 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 aggress any of the members. Each of them has to be judged for their trustworthiness, before being admitted to the club. What you get 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 they don’t aggress 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 without any consequences, you’d better join another club. You would join a group where the members punish any deviation from the pact. This punishment can range from expulsion to beatings or even death. In such a system, an individual does not only benefit from the mutual non-aggression, but they also know that if they transgress, they will pay. Hence, they will not transgress. 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.
At this stage, we have a system that prescribes non-aggression and that punishes transgression. Again, such systems emerge naturally wherever people form groups. Even the supposedly lawless Mafia groups punish anybody in their ranks who violates their pact.
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, every human today has the basic ability to follow norms. This mechanism is still in effect: We all have gone through the process of education in our childhood. This process has formed our basic ability to adhere to norms — a phenomenon that we call “conscience”.
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 watch 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 modern times. Such despots establishes 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 from the people’s standpoint, the alternative was often worse. [Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now]. That is: the despot may be repulsive, and it is dangerous to mess with him, but at least he guarantees peace. He establishes rules, and makes people follow the rules — 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 tolls of the hundred bloodiest episodes in 2500 years of human history. He concludes: “Chaos is deadlier than tyranny. More [deaths] result from the the breakdown of authority than from the [despotic] exercise of authority.”
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 that these are enforced by punishments and education. So when we ask why people adhere to norms, we can now give several reasons:
- Most of us have a built-in tendency to suffer when we see someone else suffering. Hence, we usually avoid hurting others.
- We have an interest to protect our life, limb, and property. Now, 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. Now, if we do not behave well, then the 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 on 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.
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 immoral 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.
There is no universal agreement on which behaviors are morally right or wrong. It cannot be proven from the laws of nature which behaviors are wrong and which are not. Therefore, the moral quality of a behavior is not an intrinsic property of the behavior itself. We cannot 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. These statements are what we call moral statements. Such statements are subjective judgements. Thus, “I find the invasion in Iraq morally wrong” is of the same type as “I find Alice beautiful”. They express a valuation of an action by a person. Such statements are falsifiable (it suffices to ask the person about their opinion). Moral statements typically come in the form of 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 of moral statements. 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 Commandents or other lists of do’s and don’ts.
- Politeness codexes. These codexes can regulate, for example, that it is obligatory to cover your mouth while sneezing.
- Philosophical frameworks, such as utilitarism or my Thoughts on Ethics.
- ...or any combination or subset thereof.
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 “person” who 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 label certain behaviors as morally bad, others as morally obligatory, and again others as morally permissible. From a metaphysical point of view (as well as from a physical point of view), moral frameworks 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 meaning 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 will have to fear consequences if 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 the country decides that from now on, it wishes 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 the Human Rights “better” than the Ten Commandments. This, however, still does not tell us whether the Human Rights would be “good”. An alternative for comparing the two systems is to use a measure such as the happiness of the population. Then again, we would still need the third moral framework that tells us that this measure is what we call “good”. (As it stands, a system with slavery may well optimize the average happiness of the population — just not of the slaves.)
Moral SocietiesMoral 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 a regulation. This regulation says 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” The Telegraph: Revealed — Ten Commandments of the Mafia, 2007-11-07.
- Rebel Groups
- Rebel groups aim to overthrow a government. In order to ensure that all group members pull in the same direction, 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. The Islamic State (IS), for example, had extensive rules to govern the behavior of its members Islamic State / Ideology.
- 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” or “legal system”. 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 (or law)”. This leaves the question of how the framework acquires its power over its subjects.
In our 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, likewise, was voted into effect, as are most modern constitutions. In modern liberal democracies, every law is voted into effect by parliament, which was 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. Still today, there are 6 countries that are absolute monarchies: Brunei, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, the Vatican City, and Qatar Absolute Monarchy. Dictatorships work very similarly: The dictator can just decide laws and force them upon his people. This has led to very bizarre effects Cracked: 7 Modern Dictators Way Crazier Than You Thought Possible.
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 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.
Finally, 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 Islamic State (IS) did in the year 2014 in Iraq: It just conquered large areas of land, and imposed its rules.
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, first developed by John Stuart Mill Harm Principle. Harm can be injury, damage to property, 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 cannot condemn blasphemy or apostasy — simply because these things do not influence anybody else.
An important component of harm-based frameworks is consensus: An action is not considered harmful if it happens with the agreement of the concerned people. For example, if you agree that I pierce you an earring hole, then the injury that I inflict upon you is not considered harmful. This principle is known as Volenti non fit injuria 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 it is your choice. This liberty is known as the principle of self-ownership Self-ownership.
Now why would we go for a harm-based framework, and not for any other possible framework? The reason is that if someone does something that does not harm anybody, then nobody really cares. Thus, a harm-based system is the one that requires least effort from everybody, while still protecting what people care about.
Egalitarian frameworksThere are different ways to define moral frameworks. One popular guiding principle is equality: The framework should give equal rights to everybody. This is the Law of equal liberty, and it was first formulated by Herbert Spencer Law of equal liberty.
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.
Today, however, most people 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 of those 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. Surely, you would want that society to give equal rights to everyone.
Empathy may also play a role: We suffer if other people suffer. Therefore, we 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; women may care more in general about children than men — or they may not; Africans may or may not have more sense of rhythm than Caucasians; Muslims may or may not prefer more traditional gender roles; the rich own more cars and are generally healthier than the poor. All of this may or may not be true. The only thing that matters for an egalitarian framework is that all people have the same rights before the law.
Scatman, fat man, black and white and brown man,
Tell me 'bout the color of your soul.
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 allows everything else.
A liberal moral framework is motivated by two observations: First, we want to give equal rights to everybody. This is largely because 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, but it has not always been. The second observation is that we all want to have the maximal degree of liberty for ourselves. This holds even for those who do not want liberty: They still want the liberty to restrict their liberty. If we put these two constraints together, then we basically have to give everyone the same maximal liberty that does not infringe someone else’s. This is the idea of 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 is a minimalist stable equilibrium, in the sense that whenever we change something, someone will lose out and thus complain.
An Example Moral FrameworkA liberal moral framework gives the same rights to everyone, and prohibits everything that causes harm. It remains to define what exactly “harm” is. 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 suffers undesired sexual contact.
- Property violation: Somebody’s property is affected.
- Trespass: Something or someone trespasses on somebody else’s territory.
- Obstruction: An animal or a person is forced to do something or prevented from doing something.
- Disturbance: Repeated or extreme stress on someone’s senses.
- Non-physical damages
- Lying: Someone says something that is not true.
- Threat: Someone threats somebody else with some damage.
- Insult: Someone says something about someone else that is (1) not provably true and (2) pejorative.
- Sabotage: Someone disturbs the working of a machine or computer.
- Intellectual Theft: Intellectual property is used in a way that is not permitted by the author.
- Privacy violation: Private information is extracted by (1) causing damage or (2) using 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 a damage and someone else just stands by.
- Dereliction: A child is not given a proper upbringing.
The above moral framework will most likely correspond roughly to the personal moral framework that people in the Western world use. Other moral and legal frameworks have been developed over time, as we shall see next.
Doing the right thing means having no regrets.
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.
Maybe one of the first moral rules was “Do not do to others what you do not want for yourself”. This rule is called the “Golden rule” and has been around since antiquity Golden rule. 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 also 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 duties of priests. Urukagina
The oldest legal framework that survived until today 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 and can be found on Wikipedia Code of Ur-Nammu.
Several other codes have been developed in this region. 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 Laws of Eshunna. The Laws of Lipit-Ishtar date to around 1870 BCE. They regulate heritage, the rights of slaves, rental of goods, and neighborhood quarrels Lipit-Ishtar. The Code of Hammurabi 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. Code of Hammurabi. It also established the “eye for an eye” principle, which limits the revenge to the damage done by the deed. All of these legal systems are grouped together as the Babylonian Law Babylonian law. The Babylonian Law influenced the Assyrian law (from 1075 BCE). This law 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 Law of Moses. 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. The Hittite laws were in power for 500 years without modification Hittite laws. 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 Code of Nesilim. 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 democracies Draco. The Romans developed their legal code in 451 BCE, the Twelve Tables 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 survived on cauldrons and bamboo. They regulated the administration of the state, as well as punishments for offenses Traditional Chinese Law. 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. In its later variants, it was 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 of humanity. 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. For example, the ancient laws that were established in Europe and the Middle East were independent of the religious laws of the Far East.
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 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 countries 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 RightsThe Human Rights are a legal framework that aims to be a global and universal moral yardstick. Its roots 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 published by the United Nations.
The Human Rights include the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, as well as electoral rights and the rights to due process and fair trial. They also contain economic, social, and cultural rights, such as labour rights and the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. The Human Rights abolish slavery, guarantee equality before the law, prohibit torture, and establish the presumption of innocence.
The Human Rights 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 local law by the large majority of countries in the world, thus making them binding nearly all over the world — at least nominally. Several countries have made reservations to the convention. This is the case most notably for some Muslim countries and the United States. Still, the Human Rights are the de facto yardstick for legal systems.
Diversity in LawsHumanity has developed different legal codes, ancient and modern. The theory of moral statements proposed by this book suggests that moral statements are completely subjective. Any behavior can be labeled as “bad”, no matter whether there is any harm done or not. And indeed, different times, cultures, societies, and sub-societies have developed different moral rules. Some examples are:
- 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; the popes had slaves; and American farm owners had slaves. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 300,000. 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 Slavery.
- Gay love has variously been labeled as morally bad or as morally acceptable. It was totally 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 other countries, homosexuality carries the death penalty.
- Capital punishment
- The death penalty is another example of a controversial behavior. Capital punishment is illegal in most countries, but legal in others. In the US, some states implement it, and others shun it.
- Abortion was allowed in early Christianity and Islam, but is now prohibited in these religions (Thoughts on Ethics / Abortion, Wikipedia / Abortion / History). 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 Hutterite or the New Harmony movement New Harmony.
- The practice is illegal in some countries, but legal in others. In some countries, prostitutes have to pay taxes for their job.
- Other practices
- Sex before marriage, drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, and raping prisoners of war are all behaviors that are considered normal in some parts of the world and inherently sinful in others.
Maybe there are some moral principles that all societies share. For example, most societies would probably consider it immoral to kill another person who has not done anything wrong. Then again, what is “wrong” is entirely subjective. Having sex with a person of the same gender, changing your religion, or taking drugs may all be legal reasons to kill you in different parts of the world.
Artifacts of the LawLaws are moral frameworks that are enforced by governments. Different law systems have been developed, ancient and modern, 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. This has lead to systems with very bizarre laws. Some of them are listed here:
- In the EU, the shape of a banana is prescribed by law EU Banana law.
- In Canada, it is prohibited to pretend to use witchcraft DumbLaws.
- In France, you can marry a dead person under exceptional circumstances Code Civil de la France / Article 171.
- Similarly, an uncle can marry his niece if the president of France is OK with it Code Civil de la France / Article 164.
- In Alabama, Dominoes may not be played on Sundays DumbLaws / Alabama.
- In Arkansas, it is illegal to pronounce the name of the state wrongly DumbLaws / Arkansas.
- In San Jose/California, stores may not sell plastic bags DumbLaws / California.
- In Florida, unwed couples may not live together DumbLaws / Florida.
- In Indiana, you may not take a fish from the water with your bare hands DumbLaws / Indiana.
- In Massachusetts, it is illegal to give beer to hospital patients DumbLaws / Massachusetts.
- In Mississippi, it is illegal to teach people about polygamy DumbLaws / Mississippi.
- In New Jersey, it is illegal to wear a bullet-proof vest while committing a murder DumbLaws / New Jersey.
- In New Mexico, idiots may not vote DumbLaws / New Mexico.
- In Texas, one must acknowledge a supreme being before being able to hold public office DumbLaws / Texas.
- In Texas, a felony charge can be levied for promoting the use of, or owning more than six dildos DumbLaws / Texas.
- In Germany, public dancing is prohibited on certain holidays. Salafists and Wahhabis consider dancing in general to be forbidden Dancing ban.
- In North Carolina, statute 14-309.8 says that a bingo game may not last more than 5 hours (Edward Snowden: Permanent Record).
- In Britain, you may not die in Parliament Telegraph: Don’t die in parliament — it’s the law, 2008-04-12.
- In Britain, it is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the monarch’s head upside down on an envelope [ibid].
- In London/Britain, a pregnant woman can relieve herself anywhere she wants — including in a policeman’s helmet [ibid].
- In the Netherlands, it is legal to smoke cannabis in coffee shops, but illegal to smoke tobacco Telegraph: Dutch cannabis smoker fined — for using tobacco, 2008-09-24.
- In Swaziland, young girls were not allowed to have sex for 5 years, and had to wear tassels as sign of their chastity in an effort to combat AIDS BBC: Swazi king drops sex-ban tassels, 2005-08-23.
- Saudi Arabia prohibits alcoholic beverages, theatre, public exhibition of films Saudi Arabia.
- In Saudi Arabia, women have to wear black clothing that covers every part of their body other than hands and eyes. Every adult female must have a male relative as her “guardian”, and women are not allowed to drive a car [ibid].
The Rule of LawThe law is a moral framework that is enforced by a government. Independently 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. Criminals can bribe the judges or police and get free. 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 claim their rights. If the system works well, the claimant will get their compensation in a few months time. Now 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”. 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.
The Future of LawsMost people in the Western world will roughly subscribe to the values of the Human Rights. However, not all contemporary societies share these values. And most societies did not share these values 1000 years ago.
In the future, the 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. We might develop a new concept of marriage. We might also have to deal with new inventions. What happens, e.g., 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, and when they become members of society? All of these questions show that moral frameworks have to be developed continuously in order to keep up with the pace of society.
Morality and Atheism
DemystificationWhat is right and what is wrong has long been a philosophical conundrum. We are taught 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 good and bad. It also clashes with the fact that different societies make so unbelievably different moral choices. Religions teach us that the gods told us what is good and what is bad. And yet, different gods said 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 the aura of the mystic.
For this book, the answer to the question is plainly unromantic: “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. That’s all. There is no innate, mystic ethic quality. Laws exist not because there would be an inherent justice in this world, but because humans have developed norms and enforce them. People follow laws not because there would be a universal ethics, 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.
An illustration of moralityThis chapter has argued that humans create rules to guarantee their safety. Marshall Brain illustrates this process as follows WhyGodWontHealAmputees.com:
Imagine that you were to plan a big family vacation to Disney World. You are going to take a week off of work, buy the plane tickets, reserve a hotel room and go. Most people would not travel all the way to Orlando, pay the price of admission into the Magic Kingdom and then fall asleep on a bench. Most people want to ride as many rides as possible. They want to see the entire park, watch the parade, eat the food, buy the souvenirs and get as much enjoyment as they can out of the experience. That is a completely valid way to look at Disney World, and it is also a completely valid way to look at your time here on earth. You want to get the most out of life.
Let’s say that you did go to Disney World, paid your money to get in the gate, and then you discovered that there were gangs of teenagers running around robbing people, that there were people cutting into line at every ride, that many of the rides had been vandalized and did not work, and that there was litter everywhere. In other words, what if other people were totally ruining the place? You would be upset. You would complain to management. You would want your money back.
You realize several things as you think about your life in this way. For example, you can see why normal human beings do not want criminals running around in our society. During your 30,000 days on earth, you hear all sorts of stories in the news about:
- Gangs of teenagers robbing people and selling drugs
- Rapists attacking women and children
- Murderers killing people in cold blood
- Terrorists blowing up buildings and buses
- Drunk drivers destroying the lives of innocent people
- CEOs stealing millions of dollars from their businesses
Your time here on earth is very precious, and you only get one chance to experience it. That is why human beings create laws, police departments and courts to deter the people who are spoiling the experience for everyone else. The vast majority of people are good, and they have no desire for bad people to wreck their lives.
What is the link with Atheism?This chapter has laid out a theory for the origin of moral rules. Now how does this theory relate to atheism?
Atheism is the disbelief in supernatural beings. It follows that, in this view, 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.
Now we know what atheists think about the origin of moral rules, but 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 may or may not follow different moral rules.
However, we can talk about one particular type of atheism, Humanism. Humanism says that the Human Rights should be the basis of laws and government. Humanism also says that moral frameworks should be harm-based and egalitarian.
And I would 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.
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 primordinal factor of ethics: 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, this greatest possible freedom also comes with the greatest possible 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 in consensus or not. In 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 of 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? — I can literally hear the reader screaming these questions into my face.
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. This is a fact. 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.
Be assured that I am as sad about this circumstance as you are. But the fact is that indeed, human rules are arbitrary. 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. For the people at that time, this was the natural law. 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 care for animal treatment. These are controversial now. But in 100 years’ time, people will look back at our current laws in horror — much like we look back at the medieval laws with horror. Of course, everyone thinks that their laws are absolute. Nobody can imagine that their laws are considered immoral by other societies, or that their laws will be considered obsolete in 2000 years from now. But history shows that this is what happens. Different societies, and different times, see different laws. The fact that we are both unhappy about this does not make it less true.
Obey the laws and ordinances of the community. If you do not agree with them, work to change them rather than disobeying them.
But arbitrary rules are bad!People establish arbitrary rules. Now even if this is true, the question is 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 Human Rights for this purpose. Is it good, according to the Human Rights, that people establish arbitrary rules? The Human Rights set out certain limits for laws. For example, the Human Rights say that no law may approve of torture. Hence, the fact that people establish arbitrary rules (which may include torture) is “bad” according to the Human Rights. Since the Human Rights are part of Humanism, the particular brand of atheism promoted in this book, humanists find arbitrary rules bad, too.
There are absolute rules!Some moral rules look just totally obvious and natural, and hence we have a tendency to assume that they would be somehow innate.
Indeed, there may be some rules 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 for kinship, likewise, seems to be innate. Then again, in some cases the law may require us to go against our kinship (if our brother is a murderer, e.g.). 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 are violated by some society in modern times or in history. Even the Human Rights, a supposedly universal catalog of laws, are hotly contested and nowhere near universal implementation Universal Declaration of Human Rights/Criticism.
This is not to say that there cannot be universal rules. Maybe there are some, or maybe there will be some one day.
You say people are 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 just behave like animals — barbaric and brutal, caring only for their own interest?
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 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 Islamic State/Sexual Violence. Tell me, please, 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 even tells us to do the very same (Bible / Deuteronomy 21:10). All of this is driven by the desire to have one’s own group prevail.
Inside the group, however, the human animals establish very strict rules. The Islamic State, for example, had very rigid rules of conduct within its community, which were rigorously enforced Islamic State/Ideology. They do this because otherwise their group would not function. Or, in other words, the groups that did not do it were too weak and got eradicated. Hence, all groups that we see today have this type 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 Cuneiform law. 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 Law of Manu. The Quran, the book that forms the basis of Sharia Law, is assumed to be dictated by the Abrahamic God to the Prophet Mohammed Quran. 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 (Bible/Romans 13,1–7). The medieval kings were absolute monarchs, meaning that that they could also make the law. Thus, the medieval European law was ultimately traced back to God.
In China, the emperors had a “Mandate from Heaven”, which gave them divine right to rule Mandate from Heaven. Still today, the monarchs of the following countries reign by the grace of God: Denmark, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and hence all Commonwealth countries By the grace of God.
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.
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. 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”, what exactly is a “peaceful society”, and what exactly is 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 own approximate moral framework.
People then start to impose these moral frameworks on others where they can — either in agreement with the others or not. An authoritative father will impose his values on his family. 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 imposes his laws on his subjects.
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.
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?
The answer is quite plainly that punishing someone for a deed will reduce the probability that he (and, for that matter, everyone 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. And this is what counts: Secular ethics cares exclusively about (1) making up for a past crime, and (2) reducing the probability of a future crime. All the other notions (guilt, sin, morals, etc.) are metaphysical concepts whose existence we never postulated.