August 11, 2006

Moralities



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Watching the most recent installment of 30 Days, in which an atheist lives in a religious family and community for the requisite amount of time, I heard statements from Christians that I've heard many times before: if not the Bible or the Ten Commandments, what is the basis of your morality? To many Christians, there can be no other basis; without the morality given by God, a person can believe they have morality, but it is only an illusion. For example:

"It is true that some people who are irreligious can live seemingly decent lives, but when they do, they merely borrow from Christian ethics."
I am not a Christian. I am agnostic, sometimes with leanings toward a personal spiritualism resembling Deism. But I most certainly did not derive my morality from Christianity. Am I fooling myself? Am I really an immoral person? I don't think so. What, then, is my basis for morality? To understand this, I think it is important to understand what morality is.

I see there being two different kinds of morality: a general morality, and internal moralities. General morality is roughly the same as what many people see "morality" as being--be kind to others, don't kill, steal, lie, cheat, etc. This morality, to me, is born from self-awareness. We are conscious and aware of our being, and as a consequence or extension of that, we realize that others are also conscious like we are. We can make the leap from knowing what we feel to understanding that others are capable of this as well. We know what is most important for ourselves and how we wish to be treated. We know that we do not want to be hurt or killed, lied to or cheated. Morality, or what I have called "general morality," is the extension of that understanding to the treatment of others, possibly through nothing less than interpersonal negotiation. One might call this the expression of the "golden rule": treat others as you would have them treat you.

However, this is an incomplete description of morality. The basic reason is that not all of us are the same, and not all of us want to be treated in the same way. Years ago, my brother pointed out to me a refinement of the golden rule: treat others as they want to be treated. This makes sense. If I love back rubs, but you hate them, I shouldn't treat you the way I want to be treated. While most of our desires may overlap, not all of them do.

This leads me to the second type of morality I listed above: internal moralities. These are the rules or morality that do not derive from common desires and understandings, but from those particular to an individual or a group. An individual's internal morality would be a rule or preference that applies to one person but not necessarily anyone else. This could include actions that you see as personally important, for example, specific rituals for exercise, language that is appropriate or not, or certain spending rules and habits. You violate these rules and you feel that you have done something wrong.

A community or group's internal morality is more common, however, and applies to rules and preferences peculiar to a social group, such as a family, a congregation, a region, a religion, or a nation--any group with its own specific identity. This could include such things as saying the pledge of allegiance, going to church on Sundays, keeping your lawn free of kitschy ornaments, jury duty, not smoking, and so on.

The common quality of internal moralities is that they apply only to the individual or group that possesses them; they do not apply to those outside. It is immoral for Christians to take the Lord's name in vain, for example; it is not for me. That is the most common source of non-immoral offense: breaking rules that belong to the internal morality of others.

The problem that naturally arises is when people impose their internal morality on others, not seeing the distinction between internal and general morality. As Shaw's Caesar put it, "he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature." One believes that one's internal morality is in fact part of the general morality.

Christians who believe that morality derives only from the Bible take this one step further, however--they not only assume their internal moralities are general, then cannot conceive of there even being any other basis for morality than their own religious doctrine. Therefore, to these extremists, non-Christians are immoral, or, at best, are simply poor imitations of true Christian morality.

To further rebut the claim that I am fooling myself and just "borrowing" their morality, I would point out that morality has to predate Christian morality, as well as the Judaic morality that gave birth to it. Before these religions, before the Ten Commandments, did people kill and steal and lie and cheat and think it was all fine? I think the obvious answer is "no." So, where did they get their morality from?

The answer, of course, is that all general morality, including that part of Christian morality, derives from self-awareness and the resulting sympathetic understanding of the feelings of others. More specific internal moralities derive from group or individual customs, rules, ideas, and preferences. Now, specific internal Christian moral codes can be said to derive from Christianity; for example, the first five of the Ten Commandments are internal moral rules dealing with authority (with the possible exception of parental authority), while the last five are more general moral definitions. But to say that all morality derives from there is arrogant presumption and bias.

We found morality by ourselves; if it was God-given, it was because God built it into us, all of us. But morality has its roots in human awareness and experience, not scripture.

Posted by Luis at August 11, 2006 05:42 PM
Comments

Interesting topic.

It appears to me that Christ got his morality from Confucious, Buddha and then, perhaps from Socrates.

By use of a time line, The first person to enunciate the golden rule to my mind is probably Confucious circa 500-ish b.c.

It is essentially a communitarian precept. To live in community fairness has to be a norm. Humans have a hard time not living in community, in fact they go mad, isolation is considered the most severe form of punishment.

Furthermore, in my mind the old testement ten commandments doesn't really apply to christians. Christ creates a new testement, with new laws. Essentially he erased the ten commandments and replaced them with two: love god, love man.

Christ then adds some other commandments along the way like: separation of church and state, and he commands that humans not refer people with hierarchacal titles - which suggest that he's against organized religion. That's just a couple of added commandments of his.

Your explanation, by the way, of the internal realization of the principle of fairness towards others, was used by C.S. Lewis in his essay "mere christianity" as a way of explaining that there is a god and that god is Christ. I don't quite remember how he did that, but he had that same starting premise as you did. C.S. Lewis being the famous Christian appologist who wrote The Lion the Witch and the wardrobe.


Posted by: Tim Kane at August 12, 2006 05:48 AM

See, this is what comes from not being well-read. On the one hand, I wind up duplicating the works of others. On the other hand, I can honestly say that I am not being derivative. Interestingly, I was going in a different direction than Lewis was, with a different purpose.

Posted by: Luis at August 12, 2006 11:18 AM

The problem with any discussion of morality is that most people define morality subjectively. It shouldn't be a subjective concept but it is. For instance, I've had long arguments with people in other forums about whether or not an amoral action becomes moral if there are mitigating circumstances. This confusion arises, I believe, in part because of the mixing up of morality and justice.

It's difficult to have a discussion about a concept when the involved parties are defining the concept differently. And that is often what happens when people of differing religions or spiritual beliefs discuss morality as they all are defining it according to their indoctrination.

Personally, I am an absolutist about morality and define it pretty clearly as any action taken with the *conscious* intent to harm another. This sort of thinking gets you in all sorts of trouble though in arguments about killing someone in self defense (an action which I'd define as just but amoral).

Also, you have to be careful about how you talk about Christian concepts of morality. I don't think Christians view taking the lord's name in vain as amoral. They likely view it as sacriligeous. You are correct, however, in your assertion that many Christians inflict their dogma and superstitions on others when judging morality. Since my mother has grown increasingly (and alarmingly) religious as she has gotten older, I've been getting more of this sort of thinking as time goes by though, to her credit, she does try not to verbalize any judgements of my sister's spiritual beliefs (she's a pagan) or my own rather indefinable but relatively New Agish beliefs.

Posted by: Shari at August 12, 2006 01:11 PM

I am afraid that there are some holes in your logic. For example, what are we to make of someone who has no particular qualms about killing or being killed themselves? They therefore don't really seem to fit into the "general" morality notion that we shouldn't kill others, don't they?

Now, we might think that's such an unusual case that it doesn't really apply- it's just an extremely rare exception. Kind of like those two weirdos in Germany, where the one guy wanted to kill someone and then eat them, and he found (via the internet) someone who wanted to be killed and then eaten.

Plainly, for those two people, as weird as they were, the notion of a "general" morality rule against being killed and eaten doesn't apply. Their own internal morality apparently has zero problem with the whole cannibalism thing.

If, as you say, there is a line to be drawn between "general" morality and internal morality, we should be able to find some "general" morality rules that absolutely *everyone* believes. Since there aren't any, as far as I know, either we're not looking hard enough... or there aren't any.

Now we're getting into relativistic morals. What's "right" for you might not be "right" for me. This is anathema to the folks who think that all morality springs from their particular reading of what "God" declares, of course, because it means that their "morality" isn't any better than anyone elses- and it means that they might well be wrong.

Anyway, I happen to agree with your main point, that religion certainly is NOT the wellspring of all morality. Agnostics and atheists can certainly be "moral" people who don't lie, cheat, steal, murder, etc.

(Which, come to think of it, is lucky for you and me and everyone else in those two categories, or else they might lock us up.)

What the Christian-righty argument of "all morality springs from God" is *truly* saying isn't that non-God-fearing people can't be moral. They'd be perfectly happy to say that us heathens can be moral, or at least act moral.

What they're truly saying is that since we don't necessarily believe in God, we are IMMORAL in at least that one respect; therefore, we're lesser than they are, we're separate, we're weak and bad and awful people at our core.

By saying that, it makes it much easier for them to sleep at night when the Inquisition is happening, or whatever. It's just another version of what the radical Muslims, who say everyone must either convert to Islam or be put to death, believe.

Of course, pointing *this* out to Christians in general, let alone the ones who preach the whole morality topic, is pretty controversial. If they hate the idea that non-Christians can be moral, they REALLY hate the idea that they (the Christians) are acting just like those God-awful Muslim wackos.

All of this is, of course, what makes Buddhists (like me) morally superior to everyone else. Since we reject the notion that there's a God external to us and the universe we see (in fact, since we believe the universe we see to be an ultimate illusion anyway), and since we believe that all beings are essentially equal (all of us ultimately being illusions of our true selves), and since we believe that ultimately we come around many times and the entire point is to repair our own karma by doing the right thing, and since the answer to "what is the right thing to do" doesn't really have an answer other than "you have to figure it out for yourself" because we don't really have any list of rules or commandments other than the things that Shakyamuni Buddha (among other Buddhas) laid out for us, and even then he said we ultimately have to decide for ourselves, plainly we're superior because we've figured it out and the rest of you are just unenlightened. Nyah, nyah, nyah.

Paul
Seattle

Posted by: Paul at August 13, 2006 12:39 PM

...If, as you say, there is a line to be drawn between "general" morality and internal morality, we should be able to find some "general" morality rules that absolutely *everyone* believes. Since there aren't any, as far as I know, either we're not looking hard enough... or there aren't any.I would say that extreme exceptions do not invalidate a general rule. If they did, then there could be no such thing as a general rule. Ergo the word "general" and not "universal." I would say about these exceptions that their own internal moralities eclipse general morality for them in the area of their specific, erm, 'eccentricities.' But I do not believe that it means that a general morality does not exist. If you wish to split hairs, call the "general morality" the "broadest possible internal morality."Now we're getting into relativistic morals. What's "right" for you might not be "right" for me.Which was the point my brother's version of the golden rule highlighted. Bizarre as it may seem to us, for those two people you mention who ate and wanted to be eaten, the act performed was not immoral to them. An extreme example of internal morality, one so extreme that many would argue that it defined insanity.This is anathema to the folks who think that all morality springs from their particular reading of what "God" declares, of course, because it means that their "morality" isn't any better than anyone elses- and it means that they might well be wrong.Exactly. This is one of the lynchpins of Christian religion, where people will go to great lengths to insist they are right because if they are not, then their religious worldview is threatened. This leads to arguments that seem so nonsensical to us. Christianity has to be the wellspring of morality for some Christians; to say it's not, in their view, is to essentially say there is no God.What the Christian-righty argument of "all morality springs from God" is *truly* saying isn't that non-God-fearing people can't be moral. They'd be perfectly happy to say that us heathens can be moral, or at least act moral. What they're truly saying is that since we don't necessarily believe in God, we are IMMORAL in at least that one respect; therefore, we're lesser than they are, we're separate, we're weak and bad and awful people at our core....and then they wonder why we see them as acting all superior. It amazes me that some people can essentially say, "if you don't believe in my religion then you are immoral and will burn in hell, so join my religion where we are all humble and loving!"By saying that, it makes it much easier for them to sleep at night when the Inquisition is happening, or whatever. It's just another version of what the radical Muslims, who say everyone must either convert to Islam or be put to death, believe.An excellent point: this is exactly what any country does in a time of war: dehumanize the enemy.All of this is, of course, what makes Buddhists (like me) morally superior to everyone else.Hey!!! :-)

Posted by: Luis at August 13, 2006 01:29 PM

Paul's extreme example does raise an interesting point but probably not the one he thinks. It also points out the wisdom of your brother's take on the Golden Rule (your brother is a wise man which is one of the reasons I married him ;-) ).

The point Paul's example raises is that we can't help but impose our moral judgement on others. If an adult wants to be hurt or killed and another adult hurts or kills that person in a compassionate effort to comply with the person's needs, why is that amoral? My answer would be that it is not. This is why assisted suicide is not amoral. There is no conscious desire to harm.

However, most cultures cannot accomodate such behavior for a variety of very good reasons. One of them being that law and order have to be applied to an entire culture/society and there is no latitude for highly specialized cases. The other problem is that it's impossible to read people's minds and know their true intentions. True morality is internal and can never be judged by others who observe you externally. You have to know intent to know whether someone is acting morally.

This is where organized religion re-enters the picture as there are many followers of a variety of religions who think that morals are composed of following all the rules and not based on a general concept or personal intent. This is at the root of a lot of religious conflict since the rules differ among religions because the writers of a good many religious texts and various religious teachers have created moral "loopholes" to accomodate their personal prejudices, desires and ambitions. In essence, if all religions were more attached to the spirit of their religious laws and less attached to the letter, we'd all have a lot more common ground morally-speaking.

Posted by: Shari at August 13, 2006 06:42 PM

"If an adult wants to be hurt or killed and another adult hurts or kills that person in a compassionate effort to comply with the person's needs, why is that amoral? My answer would be that it is not. This is why assisted suicide is not amoral. There is no conscious desire to harm."

Assisted suicide is not amoral, it's Immoral. It's the taking of another life, regardless of if the person's wishes, (not needs). There should be no action made on this earth by people that is amoral. Animals can't comprehend the concept of morality, so they are amoral. Humans are not. Who says the person NEEDS to die? Who on this planet has the right to make that decision? Sure, maybe they have chronic pain and are mentally too weak to cope with it, but it doesn't mean they NEED to die, just that they want to. I've dealt with teens who have wanted to die, they too have felt that life was not worth living and needed to die. They were wrong. They soon learned that life has infinite possibilities and reasons to be lived. If I had "helped" them in an assited suicide, I would most definitely have done the wrong thing, and been immoral in doing it. Even If someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, that is a doctor's opinion, and sadly oft times, doctors are wrong. Or if the diagnosis is correct, who knows what medical breakthrough may come the very next day, or month or year. Once again, to kill is wrong. If the person still does die in say, three months, that is three months that they have lived and continued learning, or perhaps teaching & influencing others. In that short time they may inspire another to become a doctor, or paint a picture, or write a song that could influence millions. All life is important.

I enjoyed Luis' honest opinion on this issue. Although he quoted some Christians' actions truthfully as ignorant, he pointed out that it is the extreme, and completely wrong Christians that do this. People who replied did not make such a distinction and were wrong in doing so. You have probably met countless good, true Christians in your lives and not known it. Those will not run around proclaiming what good Christians they are, you will know them by their good works. I don't happen to believe that you must be a specific religion to be moral, but it certainly helps! in this day and age, religion is wrongly regarded as something for the masses, the ignorant, those who can't think for themselves. Well, that is true. BUT, that does not mean that it is not also for the individual, the intelligent, and those with strong personal opnions and beliefs. Too many times, especially in the U.S., people get ahold of some tidbit of information and think that that elevates them; makes them better than others. "Well religion is for stupid people, I don't believe in relgion, therefore I must be intelligent." It's the same as racism or other prejudices. "That black man commited a crime, so all blacks are criminals. I'm not black therefore I must not be a criminal." It makes no sense. Maybe Luis is right, that God put morality in us from the start. I tend to belive this is true. The problem is, this is not the beginning and end of morailty. There is too much in the world to steer us towards immorality, so we need something to steer us towards morality. This is generally religion. Of course religion can be and has been distorted to make individuals powerful or rich. I'm Catholic, and we all know how a small portion of priests abused their position to commit horrible acts against children. Of course according to the media it's pretty much ALL catholics. Catholics happen to move the more money to other countries in charitable aid than any religion and most countries. But you never hear about the postive aspects of any religion, only the negative. For the thousands that are hurt from the abuse of a religion, millions are helped. It's unfortunate that those who are truly not religious are also those that claim to be the most religious. Look at "born again" Bush and his "Holy War". I'm pretty sure there is no better example, except maybe Pat Robertson of a "Christian" acting completely opposite of the true relgion. The world is getting worse and worse, and not coincidently, more people are ignoring or disregarding religion. Wow... i'm sorry about the length of this thing...

Posted by: Chris at February 14, 2007 08:01 AM

It sickens me. I don't know about other countries but I know in the US things are heading downhill. I too believe in the dual morality thing, though I differ slightly (being a Christian, I believe taking the Lord's name in vain is wrong no matter who you are because it is in the Bible) but I must say, we (Christians) are told NOT to tell other people they are wrong.

It is part of our rules as well to love our neighbor as ourselves. That definitely doesn't include the stupidity of many Christians. We are told everyone is equal, we are all dirty, rotten people, and if you don't think you are, then ask yourself if you have ever treated anyone wrongly, if thats a yes, you are evil. not evil as in "I detest you, get out of my sight" evil, but evil as in "God, who is without corruption, can not come close to you."

Please don't take this the wrong way, I know it's confusing, but God, is three people... though he is one person. the father that watches from heaven the son, a mediator, he speaks to the father for us, and the holy spirit (this is the point I've been getting to) who is to become our internal morality if we choose to. everything is a choice, except the general morality that is, we are all born with is it is up to us to decide to follow it or not.

I don't mean to be preachy, but ignorance of some "Christians" (be that they really are Christians or not) really gets on my nerves. if you claim a religion, you really should know what it's all about (it's called the Bible people, get with it)

apologizing for idiots (probably myself included)
Philip
North Carolina

Posted by: Philip at June 1, 2007 03:50 PM