I often hear from the religious side that morality is objectively founded in the existence of God. In this article I will attempt to put to rest this issue of moral objectivity, as well as the notion of “deity” requirement for moral behavior. I will also try to explain some of the science that helps delineate the source for morality, its nature, and why its important whether you believe in a God or not. It is often a matter of contention that morality without God cannot exist, that atheism per se has no need of morality, an argument I will attempt to artfully disassemble.
Objective Morality: Is a God necessary to understanding its value?
When speaking to people about morality, I often get into a debate that leads to the question of objective, rather than subjective, or relative morality. This is trigged by the belief of most Christians that an atheist who cannot believe in objective morality has no foundation for a belief in good or bad. That if our morals are not objective—meaning behavioral rules that are without diversity, than what’s to stop a person from establishing his own set of morals. An example of this might be a man who believes its ok to murder children, because it makes him feel good to do so.
If these rules are not objective than there is no real defense to the relative notion, and maybe Christians are right. However, even if this were true, it still does not lead to God or any other deity as a source of objective morality. The claim can be most often made that objective morality works because it has authoritarian backing. This means that we establish rules around someone who governs us in someway. Now this is somewhat true, after all, when a police officer requests to see your driver’s license it is his authority that convinces you to show him respect.
So Christians would then take the leap to the “ultimate authority,” thus God is injected, and if we take our instructions from less than godly figures who just happen to be authoritative over us, than we must also accept that the word of God being the “ultimate authority” and so where could those morals really come from, after all, it is implied in “ultimate” the source is known. So for Christians that authority is God, and it is there they believe that morals come from, objective not because they feel these behaviors but more so because of a book, or belief in the failure of these morals.
So then its easy to see where they are going with this argument, because as Christians they believe that a book (God) has told them to follow his word and not commit sin, and doing otherwise will result in eternal damnation. So here we have morality, forced, but still morality in some sense and certainly objective if the word of God is meant to be the “ultimate authority.”
So when the Christian attacks the atheist with a question of moral source, if not for God, it is with a sense that without a God to be that “ultimate authority” there is no reason that choosing right over wrong holds value. To put it another way, if I do not fear eternal damnation because I lack a belief in God, than what is to stop me from just picking the first random person I see every morning and hitting them on the back of the head with a hammer, what is there to stop me, if not the threat of punishment from an all knowing, all powerful God?
I would answer such a question by stating the obvious: Governments have long established authority over the domain of morality and punishment from committing acts of violence against one another are at least a certainty, in opposition to what is only a possibility of punishment if a God exists. Having said that, even if punishment alone were in fact a deterrence for violence, which it most certainly is not, than its still difficult to argue the notion of morality as one of a religious source, because if the premise for morality for which Christian belief were true, then prisons would only be filled with atheists.
Instead, prisons are filled with a vastly diverse group of individuals whose only commonality isn’t their abject disbelief in a deity, but rather their predisposing condition to commit acts of violence against others. And of course prisons are filled with all sorts of criminals, those who commit violent crimes, those who do not, those who commit crimes without a victim, and even those who have committed no crime, but are merely a victim themselves of a flawed justice system. This is not the time for debating such issues and I will refrain from doing so further in this section.
What this really boils down to is whether morality can be objective, if there exists no authority to impose such constraints? I believe that it can. There are various ways to get to this without too much effort and I will try to explain this now.
Most of us would agree that murder is wrong. Most of us would agree that the rape of a child is wrong. Most of us would agree that beating a little girl into submission for the crime of literacy is wrong. Most of us would agree that shackling chains to a person’s leg and falsely imprisoning them is wrong. But why? What is it about these examples, and the thousands of others I could have used, that allows all of us to all draw the same conclusions? Is it eternal damnation? The threat of punishment from an authority? Certainly not, after all, these are merely examples, thought experiments to draw conclusions. And even if they were not merely examples, they were actually taking place right now, unless you are taking part in them, there should be no fear of reciprocation. So what is it?
If morality is merely fear of authority as established by biblical doctrine, or even imprisonment by a government, than it surely only applies when participation occurs. So therefore, none of the examples I have given you should afflict your sense with more than a passing thought, but you know as well as I do, that the suggestion of such acts causes distress of your senses, and so morality is something more than mere authoritarian nature.
If you are a normal human being with a normally functioning brain and you are asked to picture in your head the rape, torture, and strangulation of a seven year old girl at the hands of a sadistic child killer, as jury members are often asked during these kinds of trials, or asked to view pictures, your normal functioning brain will feel terrible distress at the thought of such a crime, and worse still at the perception through your eyes of having to view such graphic images.
If such morals are merely relative, than anyone looking at these photos might not feel anything, or may feel something but find no fault in what they have seen. Rationality however, tells us this isn’t so easy, that we do feel, we do not want to think or see such things, nor would we ever want to commit them ourselves. But then is that again because we fear reprisal? Or is it something else?
I believe morality can be objective whether it holds to authoritarian standard or not, whether such an authority is based in religion or governance. We all possess within each of us the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, and because of this, it is intrinsic to humanity. So it is quite easy to see why intrinsic objective morality is essential to human development, human survival, and even human suffering. And as I will try to explain further, suffering is essential to understanding the question of morality.
The Moral Argument: If not for God, for what reason would we need morals?
This for me is a conundrum for which little time needs to be spent, and it’s a simple and irrefutable example. I am the leader of a tribe of people. I need food collected in the way of hunting, and gathering. I am also going to need someone to cook the food that is gathered. We need bowls, plates, utensils, instruments with which to eat the food with besides our hands. After we are done eating we need a place to sleep, so we need people to build homes that each of us can use to shelter us. Winter is coming, so we need clothing, since our naked bodies won’t survive the harsh conditions. Our children need to be taught how to continue the ways of the tribe so they can grow up and continue to keep the tribe growing.
We must all work together socially, to reach an end that justify the means of getting there. Now we continue to work together because it is beneficial to do so. However, what would happen if suddenly one of the males of the tribe decided he didn’t want to share his hunted meat with another, so he jabbed a blade into his skull? In fact, he jabbed the blade into the skull of one of our cooks, and now we are with one less cook, making it harder to feed everyone each night. What if that man decided he wanted to have sex any woman in the tribe he wanted to, and forced himself upon any of them without restraint?
Now you can imagine that long ago before laws were established just such a thing may have been a possibility, and in such a case what would have been done? Ok let’s imagine instead this man is a psychopath, he enjoys murdering people, and systematically begins murdering members of the tribe. If nothing is done, this man will eliminate the valuable members of your tribe, and soon your tribe will die off.
Without morality, then civilization isn’t even possible. So for example when you consider the first hominids to use tools and build fire, homo erectus, somewhere between 300,000 and two million years ago, you can understand evolutionally how it would make no sense that they could get from that point to homo sapiens if they lacked morals. These people lacked any civilization and relied heavily on the tribe mentality, and so its hard to imagine a situation where humans could have developed civilizations if the social necessity and moral development were lacking causing these people to hunt each other down and kill one another.
Now that’s not to say that murder did not exist as I’m sure it did, and we must distinguish murdering from simple killing. Animals kill each other, but you would never contend that a lion who kills a zebra has murdered that zebra, and so we must make this distinction because its evident. But looking back to such a time before literacy, and rational language, pervasive beliefs like deities would have been secondary to nature, and so the idea of morality could not have been founded in a notion of punishment by a deity, and so we most look for a more realistic source for such a contention.
In civil societies its even easier to comprehend the moral dilemma because laws are often established that protect one person from another. These laws of course come from societal moral definitions and constructs, but understandably from the minds of individuals with morality, not from a place of the supernatural, or through some other extreme. Such laws are simple to understand from the standpoint of the individual. I am a person who would not like to be murdered today, so I am in favor of establishing laws that help protect me from this.
I am not a woman, but males could be raped as well, but rape is intolerable for the same reason murder is, no one, male or female wants to be raped, so we have established laws to protect people. In all fairness, the protections granted presuppose the condition of the individual committing violence, or their will to do so. In a sense such laws do not really protect you from harm, but merely act as a reasonable way to protect others from further harm. Thus if an individual murders your neighbor, and is arrested, than he can’t very well murder you, thus you have been protected.
Our laws are really the moral compass for a nation, established to protect everyone with equal discretion, and maybe prevent crime against individuals through authoritarian punishment. Now going back to the arguments of objective morality, this would seem to support the notion that authoritarian punishment has some assemblance in the creation of morals, except that it does not explain as I have said why crime happens at all in the first place. If authoritarian punishment was sufficient, than it alone would be enough and morality would be unnecessary.
Instead people coexist peacefully all over this world, with or without the fear of punishment. So explanation of this is either that morality is innate in us, objective as it is, or it is not. It would seem that dissuasion of deism as an establishing principle in morality is easy and concise if even one atheist is found to have never harmed another person. If this is true, and of course it is, than we must toss aside the notion of deity-based morality requirements and look elsewhere as a source for moral doctrine.
The Moral Mind: A Look into The Moral Center of The Brain
Located toward the back of the brain where the temporal and parietal areas of the brain come to together is an area of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ). This area of the brain is essential to the moral decision-making sense of the brain. In terms of importance, a damaged TPJ can result in an inability to make moral choices. In a study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT) researchers fired heavy magnetic signals at this area of the brain and then subjected individuals to an array of questions involving moral dilemmas. In all cases the individuals were unable to make the right choices.
This study is important because it explains how perfectly normal individuals who have never committed an act of violence or any crime for that matter in their lives, have suddenly done so out of the blue, after experiencing some kind of brain damage to this area. There have been cases of people who have never harmed a sole in their life, suddenly raping a minor, or beating someone with no reasonable explanation.
Aneurysms in this area have also been shown to cause deep moral issues in individuals that have resulted in criminal activity after a long life of normalcy. Can we simply ignore such things? So I pose to you a question: If such a brain were damaged through no fault of their own, would this person be responsible for making a choice that could have gone no other way? If you establish that morality is just brain chemistry, something science has and can, and it can be easily shown that it can be disrupted, something science has and can, than the choices we make are they really our own, moral or not?
It begs a more interesting question, if our choices are as chemical in nature as the morality of said choices, than what choice do any of us really have, especially considering that you may regard yourself as good person who would otherwise never harm a person, and through no fault of your own your TPJ becomes damaged, and you murder someone?
It’s easy to assign blame to others, but when it affects you, its not as easy. It’s also more difficult to imagine that you might hurt someone if you have never done so before, but it happens all the time, and people just like you never imagined they could do such a thing.
Researchers in Zurich in a study, began looking at the brain trying to discern altruistic behavior, and not surprising activity involving this behavior seemed centered on the TPJ area of the brain. This points to a causal link between morality and altruism, because in at least someway, functionally, the brain uses the same area to handle these functions.
It would of course make sense that these areas are linked, because altruism is a sense of empathic need, of which morality in some way plays its part. Those who lack empathy, lack altruism because they see no value in helping others, they lack the ability to empathize with their situation thus they are incapable of doing the right thing. Now that is not to say that they won’t do the right thing, don’t be confused by that, those who have this kind of behavior also have a higher self-worth, in direct opposition to altruism.
Narcissism fuels these ends by allowing acts of good will, only when it serves the needs of the individual. For example, if a person committed an act of violence and was being chased by police, he might help the old lady cross the street, if he believed that by doing so it would lead the police to look elsewhere for the criminal who committed the violence. This should not be confused with an act of morality however, because the choice to make a good decision is only moral if it is done so because you belief it’s the right thing to do. In contrast, such an individual would likely walk past the old lady in any other situation.
This really brings me to another topic of which I find interesting and others may find disturbing, but I am compelled to bring up. It is important because it brings up notions of control, and the illusory nature of it. I feel its something that needs to be talked about, and discussed because its implications are so important. It is merely a matter of the mind, but an important one.
The Moral Answer: The Man behind The Curtain, or Who’s Driving this Car?
No subject I talk about more than this, brings about such heated debate with people, than the notion of illusory choices. The idea that free will exists only as a constructive notion, but lacks any real participation in the decisions that we make. It’s important to know that all of the choices that we make are certainly our own, but in knowing this, we must understand what that really means. As conscious creatures in a perceptive world, we make, or think we make choices all the time. Our choices, are sometimes simple: chocolate or vanilla, windows or mac, good or evil.
But we never question whether the choices we make are truly conscious. We assume they must be, after all, we make a decision and live with it. But science is beginning to reveal some interesting things about the brain, and one of them involves an area called the parietal cortex.
What is interesting about this part of the brain is that it is responsible for taking in much of the brains sensory information and processing it. During experiments done on this area of the brain using magnets, a person could be forced to wag his finger, or stomp his foot, or do other things with his body that normally would require some thought.
Its an easy assertion to say that stimulation of the brain could cause action, however its important to mention, this kind of stimulation only affected parts one would normally consider to be voluntary. Thus you raise your arm when you want to, it does not simply happen on its own, therefore such an action is considered voluntary, a result of choice.
What becomes important about this research isn’t that someone can force someone else to wag their finger, but rather that voluntary motion becomes involuntary upon interference in brain function. This would suggest that all functions can be manipulated, and if this is true, than the notion of free will becomes illusory. More important, is that brain scans taken during a study on free will have shown that there is a small delay between the time we act and the time we become conscious of it. Because of this, it leaves no doubt to this fact because it means the brain is making choices for us because those choices enter our consciousness.
So now that I have established that choice is illusory, then we have to examine morality in regard to said choice. Because although choice is illusory, morality is not, since we are conscious of the differences between right and wrong, as well as empathize with those who have been wronged or will be. So now that we understand that our decisions are just made for us, what happens in the mind of someone whose choices are made, but made without a moral sense, made say in the damaged part of the TPJ. This produces quite a problem for those who believe criminals should be punished, after all, if the choices made were not their own to make, and they ended up being amoral, how can we punish them for a choice they had no real choice in making?
The serial killer who lacks empathy for his victims, who was born with a less than functioning moral center, while dangerous, is as much a victim of circumstance as those who he has killed. It has been suggested by many that if we are truly unable to find such individuals responsible for their crimes, than what are we to do? Will they simply not just kill again if given the chance? Most certainly they will. So then what is the answer? I believe the answer to this question isn’t punishment, but containment. For it has never been suggested by me that those who commit violence against others should not be prevented from doing so again, only that they should not be punished for something they cannot control and have no responsibility in.
Estimates are that there are between three and four million psychopaths living in the US right now, some commit terrible acts of violence others do not. But they all lack the ability to make moral decisions, and they will all kill someone if forced to. It is important to know that these people are your neighbors, your boss, your lawyer, someone you work with or know personally. They don’t come off like everyone else, but they don’t act like someone you’d expect to be a murderer. The capacity for murder isn’t within everyone, despite what you may have been told.
You may have heard that anyone can kill, and in someway this is true. But not everyone has the capacity to murder someone else. That is a very specific kind of action, requiring careful planning, and execution, but more importantly a lack of empathy, because its this lack of empathy that allows an individual to not understand their sadism. Sadism is the ability to be overly cruel, cause pain, and harm others with the intention of gratification, sometimes and especially sexually. But those who have empathy cannot be sadistic, because to cause pain to others causes pain to oneself, and this is contrary to what the sadist feels.
Much like the feeling you might get when you eat a piece of your favorite chocolate, the sadist feels by causing pain to others. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for a lack of empathy, and those without it, would tell you they would not want treatment. Imagine for a minute that you did not suffer when someone you knew died, or you saw pictures of murdered children, and instead that which caused you pain instead made you feel good, now this last part might make you cringe because you know where this goes, but for those who were born without empathy, they do not have this foreknowledge, for them this is normal.
If we begin to look at morality in this sense, in the same sense as hair color, or eye color, or that extra toe, or overbite you have, then we can begin to understand that like our choices, its as natural to have or not have, and thus out of our responsibility. You should no more blame the psychopath for his lack of morality than you would want to be blamed for your red hair or brown eyes, and again though I suggest that criminals should no less be locked up for their crimes, punishment is not the answer. Understanding and treatment are really the only things we should be doing to help these individuals.
Now of course there is no real treatment for psychopathy, but not all psychopaths as I have mentioned actually murder other people, which means that while they lack morality and empathy, they do not lack necessarily intelligence or fear, and its possible that such a person could be reasoned with, or even taught to understand right and wrong.
This is where you do a double-take. Because while a person without morality will not be able to make a good moral decision, it does not mean they cannot be taught the differences. The problem with the psychopath is that they simply don’t care either way, so this implies that if a reason be given that makes them care, then you could dissuade violence from occurring. This is evident in many psychopaths who have had a good upbringing raised by good parents, and have had a good education. These psychopaths tend not to hurt other people, but most of them do not know why.
This can be attributed to the fact while nature has seen fit to give them a bad set of genetic circumstances, nurture has provided them with everything they need to be useful to society, and part of that is not harming others. Because of this fact alone, we already know that even if you lack the brain function of moral decision making, you can be taught to at least know if what you would be doing is right or wrong, and once you become conscious of this fact, nurture can take over, and hopefully stop any violence.
Although this has yet to be tested effectively, some scientists using magnets wondered if conditioning could be used to force action, or better yet, force inaction. Research has already been performed on subjects who have compulsive personalities, or compulsions like smoking, or OCD-like behaviors. Subjects were asked to recall something they are specifically compulsive about, and while doing so they were subjected to intense magnetic pulses. After six weeks of treatment some subjects no longer had these compulsions.
This would seem to suggest that we indeed can affect the mind, and such a tactic if it were ever used on a criminal would be an interesting study, because it might be shown that someone who has a compulsion to kill, or rape, or even think sadistically, could be conditioned to not have these urges. Furthermore, it suggests that long after the study ended, these compulsions did not come back, smokers stopped smoking permanently for example, and that is very promising for those in need of such a treatment.
This of course brings up a moral question of its own: If we begin to interfere in the minds of others, at what point are these no longer the same people?
A killer who is no longer a killer, is he really the same person? And in what sense can we rationalize altering a person’s mind so they are no longer recognizable to even themselves?
More importantly, if the person who committed that crime, is gone in mind, can the body be punished?
If the true reason for imprisoning people for their crimes was the protection of society, than wouldn’t a subject whose ability to commit violence having been removed, be unjustly imprisoned if he could be proven to never commit such violence again?
I believe that our justice system is horribly flawed because it punishes people for committing violent crimes for which they may be incapable of doing otherwise. We severely punish those whose defective brains cause them to commit the most heinous crimes through no fault of their own, while we slap those on the wrist or lightly punish those whose intention it was to never commit a crime, but did so anyway. Now I’m not suggesting that accidents should be treated in court with more vigor, in fact, I think even less is needed. True accidents, are accidents and should be treated as such, and no punishment should be needed.
However, it cannot be easily excused that some people even with a moral sense, commit crimes, maybe not violent, but still harmful, so long as they are unable to have to empathize with those affected. This is often the case with bankers, people on wall street, and others in charge of money. People in these positions often commit terrible crimes affecting lots of people, but for which they have no need to empathize, because they deal entirely in money, not people.
Not that it is impossible, but its harder to steal from someone in person than to simply take it out of a faceless bank account. And if ever there were cases where punishment were needed most it would be in just such these cases, because these are people who have a moral sense but do the wrong thing anyway, and unfortunately for all of us, these crimes are given the lightest sentences, though they often do the most harm.