Ethics and morality sans religion

You probably don’t know that I went to Harvard, because I rarely mention it, but I did, and when I was there I literally worked and studied around the Divinity school. The lab I worked in was on one side of the Div School, and the Peabody Museum (home of the Anthro Dept) was on the other side of the Div School, which was, in turn, half surrounded, like a morsel of food about to be eaten by a voracious amoeba, by the Biology Building.

And, I was amused to learn that the Harvard Div School was a hotbed of atheism. Or so I was told. But I did not pay much attention.


Well, I’m reminded of all that by this:

The humanist chaplain [Greg Epstein] at Harvard preaches on living an ethical life without belief in God as the underpinning. His new book explores why people manage to do good without belief in a deity.

Here’s the interview:

Hat Tip: Jim

And here’s the book: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe

Comments

  1. #1 MadScientist
    January 20, 2010

    Not so surprising really; for the past 200 years schools of theology have drifted away from what people would recognize as mainstream christianity, and in the same period scholars of the bible have pretty much discredited all of the bible. As saint Augustine would have said, knowledge is evil.

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    January 20, 2010

    With evil scientists on one side and heathen anthropologists on the other, half devoured by the Darwinist Conspiracy, and apparently lacking even one staff exorcist, the Divinity School was obviously doomed even before our esteemed host descended upon it.

    Real Krischuns wouldn’t go to no fancy Ivory League college anyhows.

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    January 20, 2010

    Greg, I do have to laugh every time someone takes you seriously about that. I couldn’t quite tell last night whether Shanai was in on the joke.

  4. #4 SplendidMonkey
    January 20, 2010

    Awesome presentation last night. Felt like being blasted by a firehose but in good way.

  5. #5 Paul S.
    January 20, 2010

    The interesting thing about modern humanist ethics is that so much of it is pretty much taken straight from the gentler parts of Judeo-Christian religion – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, “blessed are the peacemakers”, the idea that all people are equal in the eyes of God, etc. What humanism has done is jettison the theological doctrine that goes along with these beliefs, and the more harsh and intolerant parts of the ethics. That’s all for the good in many respects, but I think it remains to be seen if the ethics can survive indefinitely on their own without the religious beliefs that were once intertwined with them.

    It’s certainly quite possible, indeed common, for individual people to be atheists or at least non-religious and have perfectly fine ethics. I’m not so sure about whether society in the long run can sustain that, or whether the decline of religious belief will eventually be followed by the decline of modern western ethics, even if it takes centuries. I certainly hope that this is not what lies in the future.

  6. #6 SplendidMonkey
    January 20, 2010

    On the contrary, I think that Judeo-Christian ideas were borrowed from humanism which probably evolved in our species.

  7. #7 Lassi Hippeläinen
    January 21, 2010

    #5: Much of Xian ethics comes from the Stoic school of philosophy. There is a direct link from Seneca to St Paul.

  8. #8 sailor
    January 21, 2010

    “It’s certainly quite possible, indeed common, for individual people to be atheists or at least non-religious and have perfectly fine ethics. I’m not so sure about whether society in the long run can sustain that.”
    I am not sure what you mean by the long run, but you might want to take a trip to Sweden and see how they manage there. They take ethics seriously, religion not at all.

  9. #9 Deen
    January 21, 2010

    The interesting thing about modern humanist ethics is that so much of it is pretty much taken straight from the gentler parts of Judeo-Christian religion – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, “blessed are the peacemakers”, the idea that all people are equal in the eyes of God, etc.

    What makes you think it wasn’t the other way around? That the Judeo-Christian religion stole these ideas from other, more secular traditions? People all over the world use these rules, whether they’re Christian or not, even if they’ve never heard of Christianity.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    January 21, 2010

    Deen: I agree with you about the source of these social practices, and I’d add that the actual practices of any group should be estimated from what they do, not what they tell other people to do or claim they do. That complicates the comparison!

  11. #11 Ray Ingles
    January 21, 2010

    Paul S. – Once upon a time, only a tiny percentage of any population on Earth could read and write. The idea of universal literacy was a pipe dream.

    Nowadays, in at least some areas, it’s pretty close to a reality. I’m pretty sure that non-theistic morality, like literacy, can become a widespread norm.

  12. #12 DuWayne
    January 21, 2010

    I haven’t really made it that far into the interview yet – though I will, to see if the book would be worthwhile. I just find it fascinating, this discussion of morality and ethics – especially when approached by people who were either raised by atheists outright, or people who were simply not religious to any significant degree.

    It seems to me that there is an assumption – an erroneous assumption that there is some significant correlation between religious dogma and the development of a moral frame. I think it is important to understand that while one’s dogmatic perspective definitely influences their moral frame, it isn’t really much different than generalized social mores impact one’s moral frame. Indeed I would argue that generalized social mores have considerably more impact than dogma.

    I think it is obvious to anyone who interacts with me a lot – online and off, that I am very keen on discussions about morality. I think what has fascinated me most about it, is the perspective I developed while still a theist – the understanding that pretty much the only moral absolute is that morality is and that factors that feed our moral frames are generally quite similar…Though of course there are also factors that are not.

  13. #13 Paul S.
    January 21, 2010

    Why do I think that modern humanistic ideals were largely borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition rather than the other way around? It’s a basic matter of chronology – Judaism and Christianity predated modern humanism, which didn’t start to appear in any recognisable form until the 18th century enlightenment. There were earlier secular traditions in the realm of philosophical thought, but these were restricted to a very small intellectual elite, and none of them were intended for “mass consumption” because they all relied on the view that only a tiny educated minority could appreciate philosophy in the first place. There simply was no widespread humanist or secular tradition for early Judaism or Christianity to borrow anything from. Also, ideas like the equal rights of all people, treating others in the same way you would wish to be treated, and peace being preferable to war, are so ingrained in our culture now that people forget that they are actually quite atypical over the course of human history. I think that these ideas and many others can be directly traced to the influence of Judeo-Christian (and in a broader sense, monotheistic) religion and its code of ethics. Monotheistic religion is not the only way to arrive at these ethics, of course – Buddhism arrived at some similar ethics through a very different route, and if history had gone differently these ethics might have appeared through an entirely different belief system. In the real world that we inhabit, though, the ethics that most people in the western world (and growing numbers elsewhere) believe in were spread more through the Judeo-Christian tradition than through any other means.

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    January 21, 2010

    Also, ideas like the equal rights of all people, treating others in the same way you would wish to be treated, and peace being preferable to war, are so ingrained in our culture now that people forget that they are actually quite atypical over the course of human history. I think that these ideas and many others can be directly traced to the influence of Judeo-Christian (and in a broader sense, monotheistic) religion and its code of ethics.

    The problem with this reasoning is that these values are also atypical over the course of Judeo-Christian history, even among those who claim these religions for themselves. That suggests these religions aren’t the source of the values but are reflecting changes in broader values.

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    January 21, 2010

    Paul S. @ # 13: There simply was no widespread humanist or secular tradition for early Judaism or Christianity to borrow anything from.

    Apparently you missed Lassi Hippeläinen’s comment # 7.

    Also, please read Burton L. Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth.

    To paraphrase a legendary book review: What was good in Jesus wasn’t original – and what was original wasn’t good.

  16. #16 daedalus2u
    January 21, 2010

    I recently (a week ago) learned about the African philosophical term “Ubuntu”. Which can be (very roughly) expressed as “humans are human through their other human connections”. A completely literal understanding of this fits very closely with my understanding of how humans detect and measure “humanness” and categorize those who do not measure up as “the other”, which invokes xenophobia. I am looking at this in purely physiological terms, not via ethics or morals.

    I am still coming up to speed on this concept, but I think it will provide an explanation for a lot of human group interactions, including religions, xenophobia, bigotry and racism in all of its forms.

    From this perspective, organized religions are a tool of the religious leaders to hijack the feelings and physiology behind Ubuntu, and invoke xenophobia in non-members of the religion.

    Xenophobia comes from an inability to understand someone as human, and an inability to emulate their thinking processes and so understand their actions, motivations, and mental states. The xenophobe then substitutes (i.e. projects) what ever is convenient or what ever they are thinking. A classic example is when George Bush explained the actions of those who flew planes into the WTC on 9/11 as “because they hate our freedoms”, which makes no sense at all. Similarly the Iraq war was started with what was called “shock and awe”; with the idea being that individuals would be so shocked and awed that they would simply surrender. Really? What level of “shock and awe” would it take to cause American’s to simply surrender? In the context of bombing Iran to stop their nuclear program, what level of bombing would be necessary to stop a US nuclear program? How many US cities would have to be destroyed by nuclear weapons before the US would surrender and abandon its nuclear programs? Tell me the number that would make the US surrender, and from that calibration I will estimate what the Iranians will do, given what is known about their reluctance to die in battle.

    I think the physiology behind the philosophy of Ubuntu is the actual root of humanism. That is the root of the physiology that makes it difficult for some people to kill other humans. In the past many soldiers were simply unable to kill other humans. Modern basic training has evolved to overcome that, the unfortunate side effect (which I think is an immutable aspect of being able to kill other humans easily) is PTSD and overt xenophobia (which has to be invoked to kill others easily).

  17. #17 DuWayne
    January 21, 2010

    Damn, I totally missed that there were other comments when I wrote mine – FF is really sporadic about how it reloads pages when you restart it. Sometimes it reloads and refreshes, sometimes it just takes you to what the page looked like when last you were there.

    Paul –

    The first problem with your notion that Christianity (Judeo-Christian is a completely meaningless term) is the foundation for morality, is basic chronology. When it comes to religion, Christianity and even Judaism are Johnny come lately’s. There are a great many religious/spiritual traditions that predate the Abrahamic religions by oceans of time. The moral frameworks were considerably different, but no more different than modern Christian moral dogmas are to the moral dogmas of early Christianity.

    The moral dogma of Judaism was a mixture of basic tribal social mechanics and general health concerns. The social mechanics aspect of that moral dogma was probably based as much on the social mechanics of other cultures encountered by the Jews as it was a relatively natural development that necessarily followed changes in the social structure. The moral dogma of early Christianity was largely derived from Judaism and the Greeks.

    The second problem, is that Christianity has not had any sort of consistent dogmatic moral frame over time, or even space – not even in teh same relative culture. And what is moral or immoral to you, may or may not be to the person who you might have bible study with, the person who follows the same relative dogma that you might. Bottom line, morality is relative to time, space, society, culture and the individual – even within Christianity.

    But the biggest problem you face with this, is that early Christian moral dogma bears far more resemblance to that of Islamic theocracies, than it does to modern Christianity. The early history of Christianity was rife with totalitarian theocracy, bent on avoiding the persecution of the very early Christians – largely by persecuting anyone who was not Christian. And all of this was justified by scriptures, much like virtually everything that we see in modern Christianity can be justified by scripture – in spite of the fact that it is largely contradictory.

    That brings us to the last problem I am going to address with your position. The bible itself provides no coherent moral dogma. There are a few rather clear moral admonishments, but they are rare. There is far more that is ambiguous or flat out contradictory.

    Please consider that unless you follow a very fringe moral dogma, the Christians of a mere five centuries ago would likely torture and execute you for heresy…

  18. #18 Austin
    January 21, 2010

    I know I, personally, got out of religion (Roman Catholic) specifically because I couldn’t find morality in any of it.

    Doing “the right thing” because someone else threatens you (not always directly, but threatens nonetheless) isn’t morality – it’s following orders. The fact that there is no basis for any of the fundamental principles that don’t boil down to “because God says so” made me more than a little uncomfortable with so-called “Christian morals”.

  19. #19 Kobayashi Maru
    January 22, 2010

    Oooooh Harvard. People who go to Harvard get their pick of really awesome jobs. What do you do for a living?

  20. #20 Ron Krumpos
    March 22, 2010

    In my book at http://www.suprarational.org I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt:

    “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.

    Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

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