Morals Without Religion

Here’s an excellent article by Peter Schwartz outlining the reasons why we can be moral people without claiming religion as the reason. He makes good arguments about the weaknesses of both the left and right’s arguments for morality:

Does morality depend upon religion? Most people believe it does, which is a major reason behind the appeal of the religious right. People believe that without faith in a supernatural authority, we can have no moral values–no moral absolutes, no black-and-white distinctions, no firm demarcation between good and evil–in life or in politics. This is the assumption underlying Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent assertion that “government derives its authority from God,” since only religious faith can supposedly provide moral constraints on human action.

And what draws people to this bizarre premise–the premise that there is no rational basis for refraining from murder, rape or anarchism? The left’s persistent assault on moral values.

That is, liberals characteristically renounce moral absolutes in favor of moral grayness. They insist, for example, that criminals should not be reviled, but should be seen as tragic products of their “social environment”–that teenage mothers are just as entitled to welfare checks as wage-earners are to their paychecks, and that to deny welfare benefits for a child born into a family already receiving welfare is, as the ACLU declares, to “unconstitutionally coerce women’s reproductive decisions”–that America is morally equivalent to its enemies, with our own policies having provoked the Sept. 11 attacks and our “unilateralist” actions in Iraq being no different from any forcible occupation of one nation by another.

Repulsed by such egalitarian, anti-“judgmental” absurdities, many people disavow what they regard as leftism’s essence: secularism, and turn to religion for their values.

I’m with Schwartz. There’s no rational reason for the left/right extremists to provide such unreasonable either/or alternatives to moral questions. Believe it or not there is such a thing as a rational MIDDLE position without going all mushy “gray.” Our life is our primary value and our moral concepts come from the preservation of our lives. While most of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is too hardline for me, she is absolutely right in saying that there is virtue in selfishness.


8 thoughts on “Morals Without Religion

  1. It would be silly to think that there is no rational basis for refraining from murder, rape or anarchism. Prison is a very rational basis.

    Of course, all that can change in a short time. The rape of Nanking for example. The question is whether murder and rape are transgressions of a universal law for a universal law requires a universal law giver. If there are no universal laws there was nothing wrong with whatever the Japanese army did in Nanking.


  2. Matt,
    Not necessarily. There can be laws without a lawgiver just as there can be gravity without a gravity creator. The basis for all morality is survival of the fittest as evolution attests. Morals are the results of groups of people, trying to survive in hostile places, who define what allows them to survive in the best way. Murder is wrong in some instances simply because everyone wants to live without worrying about being killed by someone else. If your survival requires my death, there better be a damn good reason, or I’m obligated to fight back. It’s common sense. This is why killing is not wrong in self-defense. Morals change as societies are educated and change. As societies needs change so do morals. But, I realize that Christians don’t “buy” this argument because they start from a different premise. That’s fine if Christians want to think that, but believing in a “law-giver” is not necessary to live a moral life.

    But, hey, you can believe what you want. I won’t stop you. The world’s not going to change because we agree or disagree on this issue. Some people who don’t believe in a god will continue to live moral lives and some people who do believe in god will continue to commit atrocities. Debating the issue will not change that.

  3. You can define morality as you wish but let me at least pursue a line of reasoning. Very few moral issues today involve survival so very little involves survival of the fittest. What we see mostly is dishonesty, cheating and theft. Society can force people by threats of punishment to behave but if a person has to be threatened in order to behave, that person is not behaving out of moral principle. If a person has to be bribed with a promise of reward in order to behave, that person is also not b behaving out of moral principle.

    If you had to hold a gun to my head (and did hold a gun to my head) to make me behave, would you then call me a person of good moral character? I wouldn’t think so. Moral behavior is only part of the equation. Good character is doing the right thing for the right reason.

    The moral person does the right thing without regard to rewards and punishments. Now I can take that sentence and put in on the internet and I bet the great majority of people would agree. In view of that, would you/could you rephrase your definition of morality so that it excludes motivations of punishment and reward?


  4. Matt,

    I don’t claim to have a definition of morality. “Morality” is a byproduct of evolution and group survival issues. It’s a label after the fact of existence and action. “Morality” is the false labeling of one group by another group in power. Morality shifts when survival is at stake.

    I still say survival is necessary today, hence why murder is still prevalent. Some people are motivated by reward/punishment including religious people and some people aren’t motivated by that. MY motivation is survival, always has been. Whether it makes me moral or not is not for me, you, or anyone to say. Either way, the character stays the same whatever the motivation. If I do good for perfectly selfish reasons, I still exhibit good character. If I steal to feed my starving family, I’m still moral. Religious people, however, would call that immoral. So what? “Evil” people can still feed the hungry on a whim. “Good” people commit murder. Character isn’t the issue. Growing a decent human race with as little infringement upon our basic rights to life, food, and shelter is the goal.

    Besides, being consistent in “morality” is impossible and neither you nor I will ever come up with a consistent or rational set of moral propositions. Go here or try this.

  5. If you do good because of selfish reasons, you might exhibit good character but it is phoney good character. For if you are capable of allowing selfish reasons to drive you one way or the other, sooner or later you’ll be driven into evil behavior.

    Evil people who feed the hungry on a whim will eventually use the trust they build to cheat the people on a whim.

    Character is the issue because the world runs on trust and without character, we can’t trust anyone.

    We can be very consistent in most moral issues. Almost everyone agrees that people of character are honest, respectful, trustworthy, responsible, fair, caring and courageous.

  6. Matt,

    I don’t buy your slippery slope argument about evil, but your black/white moral convictions and your judgments about other people’s characters seem to work for you. That’s great, really. It just doesn’t work for me. Let’s agree to disagree, shall we?

    Thanks for the comments. 🙂

  7. hmmm…

    im not sure how to say this exactly…NO, matt, no. AND No, Mystery no.


    if youa re going to claim that morality is merely some sort of consequence of the sort of animals we evolved to become…you are going to need some really really good reasons for that (and a whole bunch of evidence). there seem to be plenty of things that i (and i imagine you) don’t want to consider to be good (on moral grounds) that would really serve one’s survival pretty darned well…evolutionary biological explanations of morality have some pretty glaring weaknesses…most notably they can’t answer the question, ‘what the hell is really right and why?’

    if you are going to insist that selfishness or self interest are going to have anything to do with morality you are going to ahve to have some really really compelling reasons for that (particularly if you go anything resembling a rand flavored objectivist route). because, well it is decidedly irrational…egoism has some pretty darned scary consequences (and a boatlaod of inconsistancy). if the egoist is right she has no obligation to tell the lifegaurd if she sees a drowning person…and well we can see the problems that that brings to the fore…


    umm Mystery is more than right to question your slippery slope deal…it doesnt prove a darned thing. why is it that someone who does the right thing to avoid negative consequences wille ventually be a jerk??? what is this character you are talking about? where is it? how do you measure it? im guessing through behavior…and if you are judging it based on behavior isnt all that matters behavior??? if i do everything right for every second of every day because im scared of something why am i worse than the person who did it because their ‘character’ said so (what would that even mean? and what if that character is wrong?)…now you might say i wouldnt be able to act rightly for that motivation…if that is going to be a key premise in your argument? i think it fair to say prove it…fear seems to motivate a bunch of people to do a bunch of things.

    dont ever agree to disagree with regard to morals, you wouldnt say that to hitler would you? 🙂

    have a hell of a night

  8. bubba,
    First off, these posts are my opinion only. Take them or leave them. Second, I really don’t have to give reasons for my moral system because it works for me in the scheme of things. I’m not responsible for the whole world, just me and mine. What’s right is what keeps me and my family safe. What’s wrong is what harms them or me. I may be obligated to be kind and generous to another, but I am not obligated to be self sacrificial if it harms me or mine.

    And yes…I would say that to Hitler, assuming of course I would ever be face to face with such a person. Why? Cause you can’t reason with fanatics. If they threaten you, you fight back, resulting in either their death or yours. Simple as that. Besides, always using Hitler as an argument is another slippery slope in the opposite direction. He’s the exception not the norm.

    Have yourself a hell of a night as well.

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