Tuesday, August 02, 2005

postal scrotum: the source of morality

T'am Gu Ja writes:

...I have heard many discussions in recent months where people testify that a person's faith is the source of their values and ethics, and their sense of right and wrong. The implication in these discussions was that the issue at hand (abortion and gay rights, mostly) was promoting a godlessness that would destroy all sense of propriety or morality.

This is, I assume you'll agree, patently crap. I work with several atheists who seem to have a refined sense of ethics and morality. I can also name several Christians who are somewhat shaky in these areas. What I had difficulty articulating was the source of morality.

My studies in biology and anthropology indicate that morality arises primarily from culture, but that some basic impulses probably derive from biological sources. Expression is culturally specific, though.

The argument that is given back to me is that all of the godless take their morals and ethics from the surrounding Christian culture and that, again, a culture of atheists would be by definition immoral and unethical, having no basis for determining what is right and what is not. Again, patently crap.

In your religious studies, have you ever discussed the human development of ethics and morality in a way that could give me more angles to think on this?

This is worthy of a long response, and I hope to write a full post this coming weekend-- Friday or soon after. In the meantime, if anyone else would care to write in with their own thoughts on where morality comes from, feel free.

Some people are committed to the idea that morality springs from God, though this raises theological questions related to divine command theory. It also raises questions about which God (or ultimate reality) we're talking about.

Some atheist bloggers, like philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson, actually agree that morality has a religious source, even while denying that that source-- God-- exists in reality. "Religious," as the term is used by an atheist, has a sociological connotation: religion is a human phenomenon, often involving beliefs, doctrines, rituals, institutions, etc., as well as non-standard forms of thought and expression.

Is morality something that arises from the survival impulse, as a writer like Heinlein would argue? Is it fundamentally genetic? Cultural? A combination? Does morality spring from something divine, i.e., not naturalistic?

One thing we'll need to address in the long post is the fact that most people don't think through their morality: most of us have vague notions of "decency" and overlapping senses of "right and wrong," but how many of us have really dug into our own minds to figure out, deeply, why we believe as we do?

More on this soon.


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