“Why be moral ? “ is not the question

A presentation by

Philip A. Pecorino, PhD.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

School of Professional Studies, Graduate School and University Center, CUNY

Nassau Community College, SUNY

Suffolk County Community College, SUNY


I would like to cover a number of points this evening.  They include:

That the question of why be moral has underlying assumptions that need to be examined carefully and perhaps questioned in light of our increase in knowledge that now provides the basis for claiming that there is no choice for humans as to whether or not they will have morality.

That religion is the basis for morality needs to be challenged based on logic and evidence and displaced as a working assumption or as dogma.

That religion is necessary for morality is not supported by evidence and may now be refuted by evidence.

That a belief in a deity is necessary for morality is also not supported by evidence and may now be refuted by evidence.

That morality based on religious belief systems is superior to morality that is not so based is also to be carefully examined and has been possibly refuted by evidence.

That the possibility that there is a biological basis for the root and origins of morality needs to be seriously considered. 

It is standard practice in the teaching of ethics for the instructor to deal with the certain issues before proceeding too far into the subject matter of ethics and various theories of meta-ethics or theories of what makes a human action morally good.  In addition to the challenge of relativism there is the more basic challenge expressed in the question Why be moral?  Why care about doing the “right” thing in the first place?  Who does care? Why do they or we care about being moral?  Pursuit of these questions would journey into the value of morality to individuals and society as a whole. Indeed it would stretch to inclusion of the benefit of morality to the human community itself.   Tonight I want to go a bit further on that journey and in a community of inquiry raise even more basic questions about morality. 

In Philosophy the community of inquirers share a tradition of more than two thousand years of questioning even onto the most basic of assumptions and presuppositions and foundational beliefs and worldviews underlying questions. Now with the information and the knowledge we have available the delving deeper into questions reaches into new terrain.  Tonight I want to raise the question that the question “Why be moral?” may contain within it assumptions that are no longer warranted.  The question, “ Why be Moral?”, appears to assume that morality or more precisely ‘being moral’ is a matter of choice.  The question poses the implicit claim that being moral is a choice that a human can make: that a human can make the choice either to be moral or not to be moral.   The standard treatment would then be to offer reasons why the choice to be moral is preferable to the alternative and then to proceed into inquiry as to how to go about thinking of being or becoming moral.  I want to invite you to consider that the implicit claim that a choice does exist is in need of further examination than most give to it.

Raising the question about the assumption that humans have a choice as to whether they are to be moral beings or not can open up inquiry in more than one direction.  For several centuries some have paid heed to the matter of free will and morality and the notion that if humans are not possessed of free will then, of course, not only do they have no choice concerning the decision to be moral or not to be moral but also they have no choice about any of their actions, being programmed or trained or conditioned or in some way determined as to what actions are taken from one moment to the next.  If the question of existence of human freedom, of free will and free choice or indeed of the reality of choice itself is answered in the negative, then morality becomes problematic as without choice over one’s conduct responsibility for that conduct is reconceived and along with that morality and response to behaviors found undesirable to most if not all members of the human community.  While we may touch on this question of freedom or free choice or free will that is not the direction I will begin with tonight.  The path of inquiry tonight may bear on the matter of free choice in a manner slightly different than most approaches to it.

Questioning the assumption that humans have a choice about whether or not they are to be moral at this point in the development of our knowledge about ourselves, raises yet another very basic question.  Is it at all possible for humans not to be moral beings?  I raise that question and will present the position that it is not given for humans not to be moral.  It is of the nature of the species, homo sapiens, to exhibit behaviors which the human community commonly refer to as “moral” behavior and in their sum exhibit what is commonly referred to as “morality”.

Recent studies in Psychology, Evolutionary Psychology, neuroscience, comparative psychology, and animal; behavior have produced some truly provocative findings.  The position I will take is that in their sum they present a case that the human species has in its genetic makeup something shared with other primates, namely a moral sense.  The empirical approach to the study of human behavior sometimes uses popular expressions such as the ‘ethical brain’ to describe the findings that somewhat oversimplify but the collective findings do a bit more than merely suggest that humans are fundamentally possessed of a moral sense and inclination and instinct for behavior commonly referred to as moral.

Aristotle noted more than two thousand years ago that humans are social animals, zoon politikon.  This expression acknowledges that we are not and cannot be what we are in isolation from one another and that we realize our natures when we are in community, when we interact with our fellow humans.  In the social context we develop and use language and develop and use or cognitive abilities and with that we develop and use our various capacities for creation and exploration.  We are artistic, being creators of things practical and ornamental.  We are rational, efforting at understanding our physical, social and cultural environments.  There is in the recognition of the social nature of human nature the beginnings of the recognition of the moral nature.  Social life for primates of any sort is not possible without behaviors that permit and even foster life amongst others.  There needs to be a degree of cohesion for such gatherings of being coexisting, beings with the capacity to threaten and cause harm to like beings.  For primates the degree of cohesion is the result of the development over time of behavioral control elements that inhibit and direct those behaviors that would cause harms to other members of the group, pack, or tribe.

But before raising further the matter of these origins of morality, let us look quickly at the matter of the motivation to be moral assuming that there is a choice.


Consider what the world would be like if there were no traffic rules at all.  Would people be able to travel by automobiles, buses and other vehicles on the roadways if there were no traffic regulations?  The answer should be obvious to all rational members of the human species.  Without basic rules, no matter how much some would like to avoid them or break them, there would be chaos.  The fact that some people break the rules is quite clearly and obviously not sufficient to do away with the rules.  The rules are needed for transportation to take place.

Why are moral rules needed?  For example, why do humans need rules about keeping promises, telling the truth and respecting private property?  This answer should be fairly obvious.  Without such rules people would not be able to live amongst other humans.  People could not make plans, could not leave their belongings behind them wherever they went.  We would not know who to trust and what to expect from others.  Civilized, social life would not be possible.  So, the question for the moment is:   Why should humans care about being moral?   In response to this question there are several answers. 

  • Sociological:  Without morality social life is nearly impossible.

  • Psychological:     People care about what others think of them: reputation and social censure. Further, some people care about doing the right thing: a matter of conscience

  • Theological: Some people care about what will happen after death, to their soul or spirit.  For many religions there is an afterlife that involves a person’s being rewarded or punished for what they have done.  This is another possible motive to be moral or to do the right thing.

We know that we should be moral and so should others and without some sense of morality it would be very difficult if not impossible for large numbers of humans to be living with one another.  

But set against these possible motives for being moral is empirical evidence and our own individual experience illuminating that in the moment of decision making, most human beings pay little attention to these possible motives in their conscious deliberations.  Something else may be and would need to be operative to provide for the basis of social life and to preserve social life.

Scientific research is showing that morality is linked with and dependent upon both physical structures in and the functioning of the brain as well as on cultural inheritances.

Before looking into what science indicates in terms of neuroscience and morality let us first consider that there is another popular belief about the source of morality.


For many people religion has been closely aligned with morality.  Many believe it is the source for morality and the only source.  However, Religion is not and cannot be the source of human morality as morality must of needs be predating religion.  Social life needs to exist on an order to support the generation of the basic elements for religious institutions.  Thus, that order needs to have obtained by some means other than religion.  Religion is in part the result of a need for a rationalization of the human instinct for morality that underlies basic social life.  Thus, human morality exists prior to the development of religions and must exist prior in order to permit the development of religions.  Religion uses morality, religion depends on the moral sense and then co-opts the moral instinct and may even corrupt it.

Morality is not in need of a belief in a deity.

Are Religion and Morality identical?  Does morality depend on religion?  Is morality only possible with religion?  Must morality rest on a belief in a deity?

So identified with religion has morality been that one of the most popular views holds that they are inseparable.  Consider that for many the basis for morality are the laws that emanate from some divine or supernatural source; a deity. For many of those that believe in a Supreme Being it is God’s law that is the basis for morality. But consider this question:

Does a society need  a belief in a deity for a sense of what makes an action morally good?

The answer must be, NO! Why? Because morality can be exercised and evidenced in the absence of a belief in a deity.

A. Three reasons why morality does not of necessity rest on a belief in the existence of a deity

1.That society need  a belief in a deity for a sense of what makes an action morally good goes against common moral sensibility

People do not make moral decisions and each time think about a deity as the source for what they think of as the morally good thing to do.

People do not think that unless there is a deity with a specific command making some act morally good or morally bad then there is no possibility for moral life.

People do not appear to accept the idea that any act at all would be considered as being morally good simply because a deity had commanded it to be done.  According to Divine Command Principle

  • rape can be good

  • child molesting can be good

  • lies can be good

  • theft can be good

  • slaughter of thousands of innocent people can be good

because all that matters to make an action moral, according to Divine Command Principle, is that the "god" commands it.  However, most people think that there are just some acts that are morally wrong and that no deity would command that they be done because they are not morally correct.  Thus, they deny the fundamental premise of a morality based on a belief in a deity as the source for morality.

2. That society need  a belief in a deity for a sense of what makes an action morally good goes against  Reason

the Divine Command Theory of Morality

It stands against reason that an act would be morally correct on one day and then not morally correct on another day under the same circumstances because a deity had issued new command but that would be the case according to the most popular idea linking a deity to morality which is the Divine Command Theory.  Keep in mind that as we examine this theory it is not accepted in practice by any of the world's living religions as it is quite flawed as a guide for life.  Why is the the Divine Command Theory of Morality both flawed and dangerous?

a. Who knows what the commands of the deity are?  Can just anyone claim to have heard the command and respond to it?  Sane people? Insane people? Anyone? What if the commands seem to be ridiculous or inhumane or worse?People have done some horrible and some strange things claiming they were commanded by god to do it.  Read about those who claim "GOD MADE ME DO IT"  Here are some recent cases of Divine Commands.

b. The commands may need to be interpreted, but by whom?

c. If there are a few who claim to be designated by the deity or who are designated by some group to be the official recipients of the divine commands are humans prepared to follow the commands of these designated recipients as if they were the commands of the deity?

d. If the deity commands or the designated recipients of the deity's commands do command that every human sacrifice the second born child on its third birthday on an altar would that make such human sacrifice a morally GOOD act?

e. If ideas of the "good" rest solely on commands from the deity then there is no standard for what is "good" that humans can use reason with to reach decisions as to what is morally correct unless covered directly by a command.

f. The command of the deity can CHANGE in time as the deity is believed to be eternal and involved with affairs of humans.   When some human declares that the deity has changed the command what authority determines if the command has been changed?

g.  Some humans can claim that the deity has commanded them to take the lives of innocent people in support of some cause.  Who determines if they have received that command?

h. Some humans can claim that the deity has commanded them to take the lives of the leaders of some large religion because the deity no longer favors them or reports that they have lost the "true path" or are unfaithful.  Who determines if they have received that command?

Divine Command Theory can and has been seen as a basis for a form of psychopathology when it is used to justify the killing, torture or enslavement of innocents.  Religions or cults that use it, even as a sop to the masses, are warping the basic moral sense that the species has had to preserve itself and advance.  Perhaps you can understand now why no major religion accepts Divine Command Theory as the basis for moral decision making.  And yet there are many people brought up to accept the Ten Commandments as guides for a moral life and they think that following those commandments would make them adherents to the Divine Command Theory .  This is NOT the case at all.  In Divine Command Theory the GOOD is whatever the "god" or deity commands. This means whatever and whenever and wherever.   Divine Command Theory does not rest on scriptures. Divine Command is Divine Command.   Divine Command does not stop with the Ten Commandments.  No not at all.  The theory holds that the deity did not go out of existence after issuing those commandments but continues to exist and issues new commandments. The deity can even issue commandments that change the previous commandments and even in contradiction to them.  In fact it is often the case that someone claiming to have received a direct command from the deity will do something quite inconsistent with or a violation of one of the ten commandments, for example killing innocent children because the deity told them to do so.

How does anyone know what the "god" or deity commands?  The "god" or deity tells them either directly or through some intermediary or through signs or omens or some experience that those who receive the command claim has been the transmitter of the message or the command.  How exactly do people get the command ? Well again it is either directly or indirectly through some intermediary like a person or a written work. Can the deity continue to issue commands after previous recordings?  Yes, the deity can update and change commands as the deity wishes.

So there are many problems with this theory.  So many that the religions of the West have rejected Divine Command Theory and instead hold for Natural Law Theory.  The rejection may be based on the fear of some charismatic person receiving a divine command to change the religion or to kill the leaders of that religion.

Divine Command Theory does not rest on scriptures. Divine Command is Divine Command.

1.      People claim that GOD has COMMANDED them to do X

2.      Therefore doing X is a morally good act.

3.      X can be ANY ACT AT ALL.

4.      ANY ACT AT ALL can be good if GOD COMMANDS it!!!

In Divine Command Theory there is NO GOOD or BAD by itself at all. There is only what GOD COMMANDS

1.      GOD commands= GOOD

2.      GOD forbids= BAD

3.      GOD gives a NEW COMMAND, then NEW COMMAND= GOOD

No one who accepts Divine Command Theory can question the commands of the deity or make a statement such as "I do not believe God would command the things you stated here at all." And be consistent with their stated claim to accept the Divine Command approach to morality because a person who accepts the Divine Command Theory accepts NO ACT as being GOOD or BAD except according to what the deity commands.

According to Divine Command Theory

  • rape can be good

  • child molesting can be good

  • lies can be good

  • theft can be good

  • slaughter of thousands of innocent people can be good

All that matters is that the "god" commands it.

Sacred scriptures offer no resolution of the problems with Divine Command approach to morality.  Scriptures can record what some people at some time thought god commanded them to do. Some people can follow what is written in those scriptures. That is not Divine Command Theory.  Why not? Because,  for those who believe in a deity or a god then GOD lives forever. GOD is alive. GOD keeps issuing COMMANDS. People hear the Divine Command in 1205 and 1776 and 1848 and on May 10, 2003 and on April 25, 2012 and so on and they follow it thinking the command makes the act that is commanded the morally correct thing to do.

Divine Command Theory has so many problems that there are very few people on earth that use it and they tend to be fanatics in the form of religious fanaticism, and mentally unstable people. No organized religion actually supports Divine Command Theory because of all the problems with it and the threat it poses to organized religions. Judaism and Christianity and Islam support Natural Law Theory and not Divine Command Theory.

Many people claim that morality is impossible without the belief in a supernatural entity (god), from which our sense of right and wrong ultimately derives. And yet as Massimo Pigliucci expresses it, “, Plato put a huge hole in this argument, back in the 4th century BCE. Think about this excerpt from Plato’s Euthyphro (Socrates is speaking):

"Consider this: is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Euthyphro, 10a)"

Euthyphro’s dilemma, as it has come to be known, is this:

Horn 1 - If the good is such because God says it is, then morality is arbitrary (e.g., God condoning all sorts of immoral acts in the Old Testament, including: Genesis 34:13-29, Exodus 17:13, 32:27, Leviticus 26:29, Numbers 16:27-33, 21:3, 21:35, 31:17-18,Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, Joshua 6:21-27, Judges 3:29, etc., etc.).

Horn 2 - If the good is absolute, and God cannot do evil, then we don’t need the middle man to figure out what is good and what is not (e.g., we know that killing innocent children and women, ethnic cleansing, etc. are wrong, period).

Notice that this is not an argument against the existence of God, only about gods’ irrelevance to morality. Yet, if one cannot avoid either horn of the dilemma, it is difficult to see what the point of religion ultimately is... by Massimo Pigliucci, at www.rationallyspeaking.org

Natural Law Theory

Here is another theory that in one of its forms involves belief in the existence of a deity, god.  It is the ethical principle employed by the major religious traditions of the West: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

With this theory actions in conformity and support of natural laws are morally correct.  A simple summary would be :

What Is Consistent with the Natural Law Is Morally Right and What Is not in keeping with the Natural Law Is Morally Wrong . 

NOTE: This is NOT what is natural is morally correct and what is unnatural is morally wrong.  The focus is on the natural LAWS and not simply natural acts.

In this view humans have reasoning and the Laws of Nature are discernible by human reason.   Thus, humans are morally obliged to use their reasoning to discern what the laws are and then to act in conformity with them.

Humans have a natural drive to eat, drink, sleep and procreate.  These actions are in accord with a natural law for species to survive and procreate.  Thus, activities in conformity with such a law are morally good.  Activities that work against that law are morally wrong.  As an example consider that to eat too much or too little and place life in jeopardy is morally wrong.

This theory has two major variations on it.  For the theists there is a deity that created all of nature and created the laws as well and so obedience to those laws and the supplement to those laws provided by the deity is the morally correct thing to do.   For atheists there is still the belief that humans have reasoning ability and with it the laws of nature are discernible.  For atheists who accept this approach to act in keeping with the laws of nature is the morally correct thing to do. 

What are the laws of nature that provide guidance for human actions?  These would include: the law of survival, the natural action for living things to maintain themselves and to reproduce, etc..  It is a major problem for this theory to determine what exactly those laws are, what they are in some detail, and how they apply to human circumstances.

Problems for Natural Law Theory


1. One of the difficulties for natural law theory is that people have interpreted nature differently? Should this be the case if as asserted by natural law theory, the moral law of human nature is knowable by natural human reason?

2.How do we determine the essential or morally praiseworthy traits of human nature? Traditional natural law theory has picked out very positive traits, such as "the desire to know the truth, to choose the good, and to develop as healthy mature human beings”. But some philosophers, such as Hobbes, have found human beings to be essentially selfish. It is questionable that behavior in accordance with human nature is morally right and behavior not in accord with human nature is morally wrong. For instance, if it turns out that human beings (at least the males) are naturally aggressive, should we infer that war and fighting are morally right?

3. Even if we have certain natural propensities, are we justified in claiming that those propensities or tendencies should be developed? On what grounds do we justify, for example, that we ought to choose the good?

4. For Aquinas, the reason why nature had the order it did was because God had put it there. Other thinkers, such as Aristotle, did not believe that this order was divinely inspired. Does this alleged natural moral order require that we believe that there is a God that has produced this natural moral order? Evolutionary theory has challenged much of the basis of thinking that there is a moral natural order, since on evolutionary theory species has developed they way they have out of survival needs.

5  It is doubtful that one can infer moral principles forbidding adultery, rape, homosexuality, and so forth, either from biological facts about human nature or from facts about the inherent nature of Homo sapiens. 

6. Critics of natural law theory say that it is doubtful, however, that the inherent nature of Homo sapiens establishes laws of behavior for human beings in the same way as it may establish laws of behavior for cats, lions, and polar bears. It is especially difficult because so much of human behavior is shaped by the environment, that is, by deliberate and non-deliberate conditioning, training, and education.

7.  Two philosophers (Aquinas and Aristotle) integral to the theory have different views about god’s role in nature, which confuses the issue, especially when trying to decipher if the theory relies on the existence of god.

8. The intrinsic nature of humans as it pertains to establishing laws of behavior may not be the same for all animals, which presents difficulties within the theory.

9.. Human behavior may be solely reliant upon the environment that one is exposed to, which includes social classes, education and upbringing, this opposes the theory.

3. That society needs a belief in a deity for a sense of what makes an action morally good goes against Facts

Those who hold that religion and morality are inseparable link God with the base of morality. God provides the basis for a universal morality. Without God , they hold, anything is possible. Without God as the basis for morality all that is left would be a nihilistic ethics.  History provides ample evidence to refute such claims as there are Buddhists and Taoists and Atheists and Humanists who live moral lives and avoid nihilism as well. There are hundreds of millions of people on planet earth with no belief in a deity and yet living moral lives.  So it is possible for people to be moral without a belief in one or more deities and even without being raised in and holding to any religious tradition. Thus religion is not absolutely necessary to live a moral life. 

There are billions of people who make moral decisions without reference to any religious code of morality and without thinking of their religious background or training or rules.  There are studies of moral decision making that indicate little or no difference in the moral sensitivity and decision making of religious people as compared to non-religious.

Does a society need to have religion as the basis for morality?

It would appear that Morality is independent of both a belief in a deity and religion itself. 

In addition to the mistaken view that morality is inseparable from or impossible without a belief in one or more deities there is also that view which holds that religion and morality are not separable. Contrary to that position is that which holds not only that religion is separable from morality but that they must be separable. There are those who hold that the only real or workable basis for morality is separate from a deity or god or a belief in a god and spiritual realm and separable from religion itself. They go so far as to hold that even the deity or spirits are accountable according to a morality that exists apart from them. Even the deities or the single deity or the "god" are to be held morally accountable. Even the god or gods must follow the moral law.

The reasons why

  • morality is not of necessity linked to religion

  • religion is not of the essence of morality

  •  morality is separable from religion

1.  atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to relief efforts associated with human suffering.--Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, "Morality without religion" by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, December, 2005     http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/HauserSinger.pdf

These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

These facts are incompatible with the story of divine creation. Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good for human beings as a whole today, let alone for our planet and all the other beings living on it. But insights into the changing moral landscape [e.g., animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, international aid] have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived. In this respect, it is important for us to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect on them and, if we choose, act contrary to them. We can do this without blasphemy, because it is our own nature, not God, that is the source of our species morality...

2. Psychological motivation--Deciding and Acting based on rewards and punishment is a low level of moral development and motivation incapable of sustaining more complex moral reasoning on complex issues involving moral dilemmas. It is described by psychologists as one of the first if not the first sense of morality that children develop about the time they are 18 months to 2 years of age. Most humans develop more complex and socially responsive moral sensibilities related to concern for others by the time they are in their teens.

People making decisions using the principle that "Goodness is its own reward." would appear to be a firmer foundation than for a society to operate with than the principle that people will only be good if they are rewarded for doing so,  either in this life or the next.  The motivation to act in a morally good manner if rewarded appears to be ineffective in most cases of moral decision making when the rewards for doing the morally correct thing rest on a belief in another life far removed in time and place from the act itself.

3.Failure of Scriptures-- If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.-The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris  see further Biblical Atrocities  and also  Biblical Vulgarities and   Biblical Inconsistencies .

4.Counter Evidence  --If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers. -The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris  See material both above and below concerning empirical studies supporting the claim that there is little or no difference in moral thinking and moral behavior of religious and non-religious people.  In fact some evidence suggests that a more secularized society may be less violent..

5. Counter Evidence  If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy. - The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris  See the material on this wherein the various ethical principles as deciphered or invented by philosophers is presented as basis for a secular ethics and morality.

6. Social Factors- Empirical Studies indicate that religious societies are NOT more moral than those that are more secular in their cast.  There are examples of societies and cultures that have moral codes without a belief in a deity and there are efforts to establish a moral order that is not founded on religion.  Their efficacy as compared to moral traditions stemming from or dependent upon some religious tradition remains to be determined.  However, the secular basis for morality may be more effective in securing social cohesion and non-violent resolutions to conflicts than a morality based on religious beliefs.  Here is one study that indicates that secular societies may have less violent crimes.


A Study that supports the thesis that there is Less Societal Dysfunction  in Secular Societies

Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies:  A First Look   by   Gregory S. Paul, Baltimore, Maryland Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005) ISSN 1522-5658   http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/pdf/2005-11.pdf


Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the
developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Societies worse off "when they have God on their side"  By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent  The Times, UK   September 27, 2005

 RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards  high  murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to  research  published today.   According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only  unnecessary  for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.  The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to  provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

 It compares the social performance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.  Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that  religious  belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its "spiritual capital". But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

 The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US  academic journal, reports: "Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.

 "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator  correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

 "The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the  developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so."

 Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research  bodies to reach his conclusions.   He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide  and teenage pregnancy.  The study concluded that the US was the world's only prosperous  democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic  countries. The US also suffered from "uniquely high" adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

 Mr Paul said: "The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most  indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America."

 He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared  with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries.   These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

 Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because of Hurricane  Katrina.  He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills. "I  suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal
performance of the Christian states," he added.

 He said that most Western nations would become more religious only if  the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God  scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

 "The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

 "The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."


There is a moral sense quiz by the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Harvard University that provides data in support of claims that religion is not needed for morality.  Take the quiz yourself at http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu/

Does morality require a deity or god?  Perhaps not - see article by  Theodore Schick, Jr at

  • Morality Requires God ... or Does It? Morality Requires God ... or Does It? Article arguing against the claim that morality requires God. http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=schick_17_3

  •  where he claims that: It is uncertain whether there are such things as moral facts at all. People are guided by their deepest cares and concerns.  The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.  Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is false.   

  • The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=sharris_26_3

  • A Philosophical Discussion of the Basis for Contemporary Moral Choices   A Philosophical Discussion of the Basis for Contemporary Moral Choices A paper by Merwin Sibulkin offering an approach to morality which is independent of religious texts and addressing contemporary moral problems.

  • Are God and Ethics Inseparable or Incompatible? Are God and Ethics Inseparable or Incompatible?An in depth treatment of the moral argument for God and the meta-ethical argument for atheism.

  • Ethical Oasis Ethical OasisE-zine dealing with ethical and moral issues without reference to God.

  • Human Ethics and Morality Human Ethics and Morality Exploring the relationship between ethics, morality, evolution, psychology, culture and genetics.

  • Morality and Atheism Morality and Atheism An essay by Josh Rubak discussing whether ethics and morality require religion. Has feedback area.

  • Morality and Atheism Morality and Atheism An examination of the theist assertion that one cannot accept both atheism and objective moral standards and that objective moral standards prove that God exists.

  • Morality Without God Morality Without God Jonathan Blumen discusses whether morality is evidence of God.

  • The Biological Basis of Morality The Biological Basis of Morality Scientific fact sheds light on age-old ethical questions. An article by Edward O. Wilson.

  • The Ethics of Belief The Ethics of Belief  Philosophical examination of faith and belief. Essays by William Kingdon Clifford, William James, and A.J. Burger.

  • The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics  An essay showing theological values, as opposed to human-oriented values, to be the most baseless and arbitrary.

  • The Relativity of Biblical Ethics The Relativity of Biblical Ethics   Joe Edward Barnhard argues that the Bible itself exemplifies moral relativism.

  • The Riddle of Ethics Without Religion The Riddle of Ethics Without Religion Michael Schermer explores provisional ethics.

  • For other views you can find at FaithQuest an excellent collection of contemporary essays by philosophers and theologians as well as some classical theologians. These are restricted to Christian Philosophy. Go to this site FaithQuest and click on the name of the author and then on that author page click on the title of the article you wish to read.

·         READ On scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behavior The Basis of Morality  by Tim Madigan  in Philosophy Now at http://www.philosophynow.org/issue51/51madigan.htm  

·         Do Our Values Come from God?  The Evidence Says No  by Victor J. Stenger at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Godless/Values.htm 

·         A non-religious basis for morality is superior because religious morality is too rule based (principles) and restrictive and less flexible than alternative approaches. 

People often think and many claim that morality is dependent on religion.  Some claim religious morality is superior to secular morality.  Some refer to the nearly universal association of morality with religion on planet Earth as evidence in support of their claims.  This is backwards!!

Religion is dependent upon and follows from morality and not the other way around.

Now let us look to Neuroscience and the mirror neurons and the development of empathy and sympathy to find that MORALITY results from both GENES and MEMES !!! This is something that Philosophers have greater need to do as knowledge advances.  IF there is a need to distinguish what is from what should be and to take care to make clear what is is not necessarily what ought to be then surely Philosophy takes more care to look at what is known of what is the case concerning human behavior.

Neuroscience is finding the brain structures and functioning that make for the "ethical brain".  How is this so?  Humans are social animals and as Aristotle put it zoon politikon.  As such they have evolved in part due to a capacity to relate to others and have empathy and sympathy for others that serves as the base for acceptance of basic rules of conduct needed to live with others in relative peace sufficient to support social or group life and then the advantages of social life.  Evolutionary Psychology is finding/hypothesizing the evolution of moral notions as an expression of the hardwiring. The brain appears to have structures evolved and passed on through our genetic makeup  (GENES) that provide for EMPATHY and SYMPATHY and CONCERN for OTHERS.  These each in some way enhanced survival ability for the social species of homo sapiens.  Morality is a result of and expression of those operations.  Particular moral expressions or rules are enunciated and passed on as cultural inheritances and thus MEMES (cf. Richard Dawkins work).

The primatologist, Frans de Waal, was one of many who have argued that the roots of human morality lie in social animals such as the primates, including apes and monkeys. The feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are necessary for the behaviors needed to make any mammalian group exist as individuals living in the midst of others.  This set of feelings and expectations of reciprocity may be taken as the basis for human morality. Neuroscientists are locating that sense in mirror neurons in the brain.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals.”---Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996)

Everywhere humans are found and where evidence exists of human culture there is evidence of a sense of morality.  While the particular moral rules may not be the same there is significant similarities and a commonalities in purposes served by moral codes.  Morality is needed for human community and humans demonstrate this world wide.  There is evidence that all societies have morality.  Is this because they could not exist without some sense of how we are to behave? Human beings are social beings -they have language which is a social creation. Humans could not live in groups without some sort of sense of how to behave in ways that enhances the survival of the group- hence sympathy and empathy are needed and they are part of the basis for morality: a moral sense.

There is now the study of Evolutionary Ethics and part of that is James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990) and Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Both claim that coming to grips with our moral sense involves looking not toward heaven but rather toward our fellow members of the animal kingdom, particularly the three great apes."--Tim Madigan

“The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilised races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.”--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, "Conclusion"

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured. On this, consider  Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior .

In The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga (Dana Press: NY, 2005) the neuroscientist describes experimental evidence to support his claims that the left hemisphere of the brain operates to unify the various systems within the brain and serves as an interpreter to fashion stories that become the personal beliefs of each person.     Humans need beliefs and belief systems to make sense of their sensory inputs.  The human species reacts to events and the brain interprets the reaction.  Out of those interpretations there arise the beliefs by which people guide their actions.  Some of the beliefs lead to rules by which people will live.  And so there emerges a moral sense upon practical considerations.  The left hemisphere continually functions to interpret events and to create stories to accommodate the sensory and ideational inputs.  Whenever there is information that does not fit the self image created by the interpreter or the conceptual framework or belief system previously held and operative, then the interpreter will create a belief to make sense of it in some manner or hold it in some way relation to previous information and beliefs.  The human species has a core set of reactions to challenges. Humans share similar reactions to situations.  They share the evocation of empathy and sympathy.  Humans have mirror neurons that evoke this reaction.  Other primates also have such mirror neurons.  They appear to make a social life possible. Gazzaniga holds that there exists some deep structure in the brain driving not only a certain common set of values as expressions of the evoked responses but also the need to create cultural edifices or social constructs for moral codes.  Thus religion evolves to satisfy that drive.

Religions may have begun from an instinctual reaction common to humans.  It evolved into a social support system and system of rationalizations (beliefs) that attempt to make sense of the individual responses to one another and to situations faced by all humans.

Gazziniga holds that there are neural correlates of the religious experience in the temporal lobes of the brain.  Temporal lobe epilepsy has as one of its symptoms a hyper religiosity.

Gazziniga holds for the possibility of a universal ethics for all humans based on the most basic of evocations shared by all humans.  Current research utilizing moral sense testing is producing interesting findings in support of the hypothesis of a genetic base for morality in humans.

For Gazzaniga humans want to believe, they want to believe in a natural order and they want a codification of their most basic empathetic responses towards others.  Gazzaniga wants science, as neuroscience to assist the human community to have what it appears to need and based on the best information available.

So humans are hardwired and programmed for morality and religion rides in on that as a context in which the programming results in producing a fuller expression.  This in turn is culturally transmitted and thus the human impulse is most often being routed through religious institutions and practices.

On scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behavior The Basis of Morality  by Tim Madigan  in Philosophy Now at http://www.philosophynow.org/issue51/51madigan.htm  

There is consideration given to the impact of looking at morality as rooted in the evolution of the species and in the neural endowment of human brains.       Is “the new neuromorality” a threat to traditional views of right and wrong? by Cathy Young in reason on line August/September 2005


Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, in Moral Minds (HarperCollins 2006) holds that humans are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. This system in the brain generates instant moral judgments.  This was needed in part because often quick decisions must be made in situations where life is threatened.  In such predicaments there is no time for accessing the conscious mind.  Most people appear to be unaware of this deep moral processing because the left hemisphere of the brain has been adept at producing interpretations of events and information and doing so rapidly thus generating what may be accepted as rationalizations for the decision or impulse and response that is produced rapidly by the brain without conscious attention even being possible.

Hauser has presented an argument with a hypothesis to be tested empirically.  That process is underway . There is considerable support for it already gathered in work with primates and in close examination of the works of and research now being conducted by moral philosophers as well as by primatologists and neuroscientists.

"Morality without religion" by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, December, 2005   http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/HauserSinger.pdf

 Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory”, “permissible” or “forbidden.”

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.
2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.
3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test [http://moral.wjh.edu]. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that cannot account for the differences in play.

Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

Research in Neuroscience has proceeded so far as to call into discussion how humans are responsible for their actions and the degree to which all ethical thinking or morality is merely post facto rationalizations for the near automatic responses made to situations by the brain.  The Brain on the Stand  by Jeffrey Rosen on recent scientific work and its implications.

Morality may be rooted deep in the evolved workings of human brains with its mirror neurons and the operation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  Morality and Brain Injury by Benedict Carey.  However, if you reflect a moment on the question of how people become moral (GENES for brain structures and functioning) and how they then acquire the exact moral precepts or rules (MEMES-moral codes and ethical principles)  by which they live you will probably realize that a number of factors come into play in the development of personal morality.  Indeed you will probably think that people become moral or learn about morality due to their involvement with:





















Media- television, films, videos, music, music videos









How exactly each person develops their ideas about right and wrong is a subject being studied by psychologists.  This type of study is part of what is known as Moral Psychology.  One of the most famous of the psychologists who does such studies is Lawrence Kohlberg.  He has a theory of moral development based upon his research with people from very young ages through the adult years.   His work confirms and expands upon an earlier theory by the American Philosopher John Dewey.

 Stages of moral development

John Dewey

Lawrence Kohlberg



I. Pre-conventional :  concern for self

1. Reward / Punishment

I. Pre-conventional concern for self

2. Reciprocity

II. Conventional: concern for self and others

3. Ideal Model -Conformity

 II. Conventional concern for self and others

4. Law and Order

III. Post Conventional: concern for others

5. Social Contract

III. Post Conventional  concern for others

6. Universal Principles



Kohlberg used scenarios to elicit responses from his subjects concerning their thinking about what makes an act right or wrong.  He was less concerned with their answer as to what they would do or approve of in others as he was interested in their reason for thinking as they did.  Here is a simplification of his famous Heinz Scenario:  

How would you solve the following scenario which Kohlberg used on his research subjects ?  

A man named Heinz had a dying wife. The wife had an almost fatal disease.

The local druggist owned a $20,000 drug that could save her.


Heinz could not raise the money in time and he certainly did not have the cash to buy the drug.

Heinz therefore made a decision and that night he broke into the drug store and stole some of the medication.

Should Heinz have done that?

Why do you think that?

Kohlberg thought that fewer than 25% of people ever progress beyond the fourth stage and do so because of some event that presses them to develop further.

Events can force a person to move further.  The decision to have an abortion, to resist the draft or to assist your mother lying on her death bed to die quickly and with less pain and suffering are the sorts of events for which individuals must come to face just what it is that makes an action right or wrong.  It is at those times and through those events that individuals come to learn what their values are, who they are and what their moral rules will be.  Consulting with friends and religious advisors about such matters will bring much advice but leave the decision-making about the rules and the actions to the individual.

For more recent studies  Learning Right From Wrong  or  The Moral Instinct by Stephen Pinker

So it would appear more and more evidence advances in support of the notion that morality is part of our nature.  Behavioral pathology and the amoral human being, the sociopath and the psychopath are being related to the diseased or malfunctioning brain. Thus the claim gains support that morality is resting on a basic moral sense and not on a created institution such as religion.  Morality based on a non-religious base may have greater adherence to the fundamental precepts that are expressions of the basic sense.  A morality based on the ideations of religious traditions may not have a strong a basic hold and when an alternative secular tradition appears it may gain more adherents and more influence over society.

Secular over Religious Morality

There are those who think that a morality based on a negative motivation is inferior to one based on positive motives.  To avoid doing wrong based on fear is far inferior to a morality based on well reasoned principles and the desire of the autonomous moral agents to act in a manner that is in accord with some set of basic ethical principles that resonates with some core values.  Religious morality appears to rest on fear.  There is the fear of reprisals from deity or deities.  There is fear of punishments from a deity.  There is fear of a next lifetime being set under conditions that are not favorable.  There is the fear of the loss of salvation and eternal damnation and punishment.  Opposed to such a motive secular ethics is based on the well reasoned conclusion that certain conditions for social life that a valued are better achieved by adherence to some set of guiding principles for decision making.  

There is much criticism of the moral foundation of Western Civilization located in the proselytizing religions of monotheistic tradition.  The morality of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions have all at one time or another supported many heinous human actions and organized violence against others, even within the same tradition.   Many atrocities have been committed in the name of those religions. Religions have been associated as a motivating factor or near total explanatory cause for most wars and such phenomena as the Intifada, Crusades, Inquisition, 9-11, arranged marriages to minors, the suppression of women, oppression of homosexuals and lesbians, the burning of witches, condoning slavery, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, suicide bombings, the sexual abuse of small children, and so on.

While it is often argued that religion despite whatever may be its shortcomings or flaws or faults does at least instill a morality or a community ethos without which social life and civilized life would not be possible.  Against this claim there are a growing number of people who would argue that a morality resting on a religious faith that is founded on nothing but faith in the hope of securing a better life after a life on earth is a morality that fosters within people a sense of meanness towards others and even a selfishness in a concern for personal salvation.  Such a morality does its worst on humans when it encourages a faith upon which it rests that is a faith that is held without or beyond reason and evidence to support it.  Such a morality is inclined to be one that is without a degree of sensitivity for nuance and for critical and reflective thought.  It is a morality of literal interpretation and simple minded applications.  It is a morality of tradition that finds it very difficult to adapt to changes in the physical and social environments and to incorporate advances of science and technology into its moral schema.  This morality is one that resists adaptation to progress.  Slavery, the subjugation of women, just and holy war theory, the inequality of social classes are all supported by such morality.

Morality founded upon the hope of survival of the death of the body and eternal life is a morality that has at its base a number of difficulties.   It is founded on a reward-punishment approach to morality that is rather simplistic and childlike.  If there is a situation for which there is no punishment does that make it permissible?   If the motive for doing what is morally good is the hope of eternal life then what happens when a) there is no proof that there is such a life?  b) the idea of an eternal life becomes less positive and more negative as people realize that an infinite amount of time is an idea that drains meaning out of the value of human life?

It is sometimes thought that the religions of the East are more spiritual and contemplative and thus more innocuous and perhaps more humane than those of the West.  The record indicates otherwise.  There are cases too numerous in the East of atrocities and of human insensitivity to match those in the West.  Even within the traditions of Buddhism there have been tales of physical violence on massive scales for over two thousand years.

In the light of the horrors perpetrated by or in the name of religion alternatives are sought for the ethical principles found in religious traditions.  The non-religious or secular alternatives are sought through the use of human reason, a universal resource.  A view of morality that is founded on reasoning and a naturalistic worldview is thought to be more dependable and more capable of being universalized than is any set of principles that are dependent on religious worldviews.  There are people at work on developing or applying such secular ethical principles to their lives and attempting to develop and maintain a social life under such principles.  Secular humanists are such people along with those who make their moral decisions based on principles such as those developed by philosophers like Mill and Kant and Rawls.

Some might argue that for the most part secular ethics have already replaced religious ethics in everyday practice,  It could be concluded that most people who claim that their ethical principle is one that is rooted in some religious tradition are actually in practice operating from another ethical principle altogether.  One of the most common such principles is that of Ethical  Egoism  or here Ethical Egoism whereby decisions are made based on what is thought to be in the best interests of the person making the decision and one that most satisfies the interests of that actor whatever those interests may be.  

This is most true of people in developed nations with advanced information technologies and communications and entertainment systems.  There has been a "secularization" of daily behavior in such locations for some time.  The operative moral base or ethical principle employed in such settings by most people is not a religion based ethic nor does it come from a deity.  It is the secular principle of ethical egoism.   Philosophers and moralists such as secular humanists have been working on the promotion of an alternative ethical base, such as based on caring for other human beings.

Caring to produce the satisfaction of the interests of the greatest possible number of humans when making moral choices is at the base of the ethical tradition known as Utilitarianism

Recently there has been the growing movement of secularists (non-religious peoples) to develop a moral foundation for a social order that is progressive and life affirming.  The Council for Secular Humanism  has its The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles available for examination and consideration.   There are other such groups as the Ethical Culture Societies promoting ethical principles that are not based on any religion as a basis for ordering social life. "Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society."

For more on Humanists and Atheists and Secularists see this listing http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/PHIL_of_RELIGION_TEXT/CHAPTER_9_MORALITY_VALUES/Humansts-Atheists.htm

There are therefore examples of societies and cultures that have moral codes without a belief in a deity and there are efforts to establish a moral order that is not founded on religion.  Their efficacy as compared to moral traditions stemming from or dependent upon some religious tradition remains to be determined.

Recall there are now studies that indicate that secular societies may have less violent crimes. Why is this?  Whence is the basis for morality absent beliefs in deities or the presence of religious institutions holding influence over the masses?  It could be that it is in human nature itself: a basic moral sense.  This sense does not permit humans living amongst other humans not being moral in the sense that they will exhibit empathy and sympathy for the plight of others, if only for the sake of their own well being. The question “Why be moral?” should be seen as a mute question for there is no such choice as assumed by the question.  As long as humans have been social beings they have exhibited behavior we can term as being moral. Such behavior is aprt of being human.  Why have we not realized this as clearly as we might instead prefering to focus on the rational, creative, and emotive aspects of human nature? Perhaps because it is too clear.


Stephen Pinker in his work, the Blank Slate, credits anthropologist Donald Symons for pointing out something that strikes us directly as very telling and counting against moral relativism, multiculturalism and at the same time a morality based on religious tradition.

IF a single person were to kidnap a young girl and brutalize her, physically and sexually assaulting her, throwing acid into her face, partially dismembering her, surely humans would be repelled and revolted by those actions.  They are so against our basic moral sensibilities.  However, should thousands behave in that manner we have come to calling it a product of their culture and we are exhorted to withhold our moral condemnation of traditions that are not our own.  What would allow or encourage humans to commit such acts?  The record will show that it is not secular humanism or any secular ethic that does so.  The heinous behaviors are resultant nearly always from religious belief systems.  Some would have them as being the work of religious fanatics, religious cults, and extremists so as not to have the behavior disparage religion itself.  Be that as it may, it is religious rationalizations and justifications that support or drive the inhuman actions. A religious ethic is less likely to oppose all acts of harm to humans. Few are the exceptions to this but they do exist within Hinduism(Jainism) and Buddhism and less so in the religions of the West.

 Consider please this interesting observation.  Most people asked to complete this sentence:  ” People should be free to do what they want to do as long as they ________  “ complete it in much the same manner.  Again:  ” People should be free to do what they want to do as long as they ________  “

And how do you complete it?  Most do it thusly: ”People should be free to do what they want to do as long as they do not hurt others. “  Why is this so?  There are those mirror neurons and the human capacity for empathy and sympathy deep in our nature.  IT is the source of a natural instinct for morality.  We inherit an impulse to interact and to seek pleasure while avoiding pain but for ourselves and for others nearest to us.  We want to do as we please as long as we do not cause harm to ourselves and want not to bring harm to ourselves and we expect and ask the same of others.   The popularity of the Golden Rule across cultures is explainable in terms of the common genetic inheritance.  Ethics based on this natural fact are likely to have more adherents than ethics that would warp such a basic sense of empathy.  Religious ethics can promote a form of psychopathology and moral blindness as they would have the basic sense of compassion and sympathy set aside by adherence to commands or even ethical principles received from authorities that support actions that do cause harm to others.   Many of the worst human atrocities have religious beliefs and commands at or near their root.  Humans should behave as humans would behave were it not for the interference of beliefs that would have us deny our basic moral sensibilities.  Why not live and let live as a moral guide?  In the absence of beliefs in deities and religious doctrines and commandments it might just be possible.


Since Socrates, Philosophers have attempted to locate another source of morality that would fill the void between the absolute, universal morality based upon religion and belief in a deity as the source of moral authority and the nihilism of relativistic ethics and the post modern moral malaise.  Now such inquiry must take full account of the findings of science and our vast increase in knowledge.  It would appear that human being are, by nature, moral beings. But that we are moral beings and inescapably moral beings does not necessarily extend to the manner in which our morality evidences itself.  There is the operation of cognition and rationalization and critical thought that develops and has developed a number of different approaches to thought about what makes an action moral, what humans do consider or ought to consider as the moral “good”.  There is much thought about how human values can be instanced in or through human conduct.  This is the territory of philosophical discourse and the branch known as “meta-ethics”.  Exactly which ordering of our values is to serve or best to serve as some sort of guide for moral decision making that best serves the human community is a topic for another  evening. 

Thank you.