An irreligious morality
There are many people, probably the majority, who believe that morality is ordained by a supreme being of some sort. They therefore subscribe to what is called an absolute moral code. Others take the view that our morality is a product of a mixture of our own choice and the evolutionary pressure arising from our being a part of society. It is therefore subject to change to reflect the changing conditions and needs of society. They believe in what is called relative morality.
Believers in an absolute moral code deride this view. They say that it is not true morality, as a relative moral code could consist of anything, depending on the whim of the person concerned - it could be one based on hate or love or any of the permutations in between. Granted, however, that the relative or secular morality of any era is a product of our evolution as a social species, then it far less open to extremes than one might imagine. Evolutionary pressure would be expected to exert a counter-influence against variations which would damage society. If our morality is in fact a product of our evolution as a social animal then we might also expect at least a simple form of morality to exist in other groups of social animal – which, of course, is the case.
Neither is absolute morality as absolute as it claims. We have seen considerable changes in so-called absolute morality over the centuries and millennia.
The evolutionary view of morality explains this usually unacknowledged, but episodically changing nature of “absolute” morality, as well as the constant flux of relative morality and the relatively benevolent morality which we have today in the West.
Paul J Buckingham
The need for morality
We have laws that require us to behave in a particular way and sanctions for when we don't. We support this because if the rule of law were to break down, then our lives would be much more difficult. We could not assume that mostly we can walk down the street without being attacked, buy things which are what they purport to be or pay premiums to insurance companies in the expectation that claims will be met. It makes sense to us that we should live our lives as part of a matrix of people who can trust each other at this level.
Acting morally, however, includes much behaviour which would not be the subject of any normal legal system. So why do we bother to act in this way? If you believe in a god, then it is simple - it is an absolute requirement. It is Gods law. And God's law does not change.
But is this really so? Let us go back in time to when, to most people, at least, it was perfectly clear that our morality came from above. The absolute nature of morality was a given. The slight difficulty with this was, of course, that across the world there were many absolute moralities, unknown to probably the majority of people, or if known, then brushed aside as the standards of savages, pagans or heretics.
The changing nature of absolute morality
Not only that, but, looking at Christianity as an example close to home, it is quite clear that its absolute moral code has in fact changed radically over the millennia. I include here the morality of Old Testament times which has always been accepted as an integral part of Christianity . The fact is that the moral code given to the Children of Israel, would not in any way be acceptable today, whether to secularists or to Christians. We have the direct authorisation of God in the Old Testament for genocide , rape as a weapon of war , deliberate killing of civilians, including children , and other acts which would trigger the issue of indictments by the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague and, of course, slavery.
Slavery was expressly approved by
the Old Testament , condoned in the New
Testament by Paul in his letter to Philemon
and, although controversial amongst the Church
fathers, it was encouraged over many centuries
by the Vatican in respect of pagans and
Although quite common in Anglo-Saxon times,
when William the Conqueror arrived at
Hastings, the Normans would not accept its
continuance. Slavery was not acceptable, at
least where they had come from in Northern
France, and so, although no law was actually
passed to ban it, slavery came to an end in
England by the end of the 12th century. Mind
you, they did introduce the feudal system
which was perhaps slavery light. But
then slavery itself it reappeared in the 16th
century, albeit mainly using offshore
locations, and was fundamental to the
considerable fortunes made in the
colonies. It became so ingrained in
society that it became an integral part of
many people’s pension plan, including Anglican
priests and little old ladies in the United
Kingdom, until its abolition in 1833, when
they all became entitled to compensation for
their loss of income!
The truth is that these absolute moral rules are incompatible with the relatively tolerant and fair society which we are today in the UK and in most of the rest of Europe. We have simply adopted a different moral code. Somehow, then, the original god-given Judeo-Christian moral code has changed over the years, at least in most of Europe. Although there are still some extremists, by and large the present day Judeo-Christian interpretation of their code(s) has somehow come more or less into line with the way in which we think as a modern liberal society.
Punctuated equilibrium view of absolutism
Although the absolutists claim that their morality is a set of unchanging precepts against which we can confidently judge our actions, we can see that this is contradicted by the evidence. The long history of our morality is, in fact, analogous to the idea of punctuated equilibrium in the description of how evolution has occurred over the aeons. That is to say, there are long periods of relatively little change followed by a short burst of considerable change with the loss of many species and the appearance of many new ones. This is then followed by a long period of relative stasis and so on. And so with religions promoting absolute moral codes. There are periods of little change followed by a catching-up demanded by circumstances and social attitudes which cause a change in the official interpretation of the absolute rules accepted up until then.
Sometimes, of course, those absolute rules are wiped out altogether, just as some species are, because the people upholding them are themselves defeated and forced to accept someone-else's (absolute) rules, or are themselves wiped out as a people. So then while we may talk in philosophical terms of the concept of absolutism, in practice it cannot really be said to exist. The examples of it we have seen have had a limited shelf-life. In fact, we have only what we might call 'Punctuated Absolutism'.
So then, what of the relativists? Are they in any better position? Clearly, if my morality is defined by me, then it may be based on anything from pure altruism to pure hatred. That at any rate is the theoretical position. In that event, you would expect to see moralities reflecting the full range of possibilities. Of course it may be that their distribution would follow the usual bell curve and so the more extreme moral codes would be expected to be less prevalent. But I would suggest that there is in any event no free market in moral codes. Their prevalence is substantially modified by various countervailing influences and controlling factors.
The received view of the problems associated with a subjective morality derive largely from an over-concentration on what it could logically be, but which ignores the evidence amassed of how we in fact behave in order to make society work for us and so the factors which in fact drive morality. This also deals with the point often made by religiously inclined people that, in the absence of a God who defines our moral code for us, we have no right to judge anyone’s actions. There is no standard by which we can be judged. But as we shall see later on, this is a fallacy. There may not be a God-given right to judge others behaviour, but there is certainly every reason to outlaw certain types of behaviour for the good of society. And in what sense has God-based judgement of our moral behaviour actually produced a better society?
Evolutionary pressure as the source of morality
The point at which we should
start is an acknowledgement that our secular
morality is not something created primarily by
philosophers or theologians, but by
evolutionary pressure. Theologians are at best
reacting to what they see as our group’s
behaviour code and attempting to categorise it
in terms consistent with the religion they at
that time espouse. One might indeed argue that
they in fact take the moral code that then
exists and create a religion around it. But we
see that, even in the absence of a belief in
god, for most of us, for most of the time,
acting according to a moral code of some sort
comes quite naturally. We don’t behave
in some random way. It appears from research
carried out that there are several main
inter-related reasons for this.
Co-operation in groups gives evolutionary advantage
overarching reason, however, for the existence of
the emotions which give rise to our secular
morality, is the fact the we function best as part
of a group. It is worth noting that the father of
sociobiology, Edwin O Wilson has changed his view
on the importance of groups in evolutionary terms.
From the 1960's there had been a consensus amongst
sociobiologists that significant evolutionary
pressure came only through the individual and his
genes. Wilson has now however concluded that
although the individual is important, the group to
which the individual belongs can actually be
equally important, as Darwin originally
proposed. One group can outdo another by
reason of its members' willingness to co-operate
and thus favour the quality of life of its members
and therefore their individual reproductive
The benefit of the rule of law
Clearly, however, despite our fairness instinct and group pressure, the tendency to act altruistically or fairly is not the same in everyone. It is for that reason, I would suggest, that the human race has gone one step further by evolving legal systems which are, normally, based on fairness. The 'nice guys' are fed up with being taken for granted and have brought the lawyers in.
The law has evolved over the millennia to reflect what society currently regarded as fair. Taking a few modern examples we see, for instance, that the law of contract is based on the premise that it would be unjust (i.e. unfair) for someone to take advantage of a bargain entered into without doing what he had undertaken to do in return. The criminal law imposes fairness (justice) by punishing people who steal from us or by penalising those who drive so carelessly that they endanger others. Fairness demands that damages be paid for injury caused by your negligence. We are willing to vote for governments which will levy redistributive taxes to support those less well-off than ourselves, but we get very upset if we find that people are playing the system. Its not fair.
The law penalises the exercise of anti-social moral codes
Of course group pressure is a powerful tool, but one which can produce widely varying consequences. Some groups require as a part of their moral code the commission of what the rest of us would regard as immoral or even illegal actions for acceptance. If I am on a sink estate, then I am likely to find that stealing cars or dealing in drugs is regarded as necessary behaviour if I wish to belong to a gang. I shall be expected to lie to the police for my friends. However, here, there is a ganging-up by the rest of society on those whom we categorise as criminals. We use the law to try forcibly to stop them complying with their particular moral code. Why? What is our justification? It is because we see them as acting to the disadvantage of society as a whole. As we have already noted, the law is there to ensure fairness in society, and this, despite what particular individuals may consider to be in their individual best interests.
Which seems to mean that the aspects of fairness which we judge to be absolutely essential to our lives are a part of our legal system - we enforce fairness. And it seems to me that this makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, because societies which have under-developed or corrupt (i.e. unfair) legal systems or those which disadvantage a section of society, such as women, are mainly less successful economically (and in most other ways) than they could be, with all that that implies.
As an aside, it is worth noting that freewill does not have to enter the equation in order for the law and indeed moral pressure to be useful or justified. Free will is an age-old conundrum but the difficulty is a theological problem. That morality in general and the criminal law in particular are thought to depend upon it is a confusion of thought. Without some alternative to decisions made as a result of the chain of causes and effects of the physical world, religion cannot meaningfully blame us for our sins. Secular morality and the law can, however, as they have a different function. So, how to tease them apart?
The law doesn't punish me where there is duress – for example the deadly thrust of a knife held in my hand but where someone stronger than me has hold of that hand and uses it as if it were his own. That is not my action in law. But in a deterministic world the causes and effects leading up to a decision I actually do make to kill someone mean that I am equally constrained to do what I have done. And so it is argued that, logically, I should be excused. But the law is not religion. Instead, the law can quite justifiably be regarded simply as a feed-back mechanism. It is there to discourage us, as rational beings aware of the results of what we do, from doing things which would disadvantage society. Through the threats it makes to those thinking of criminal activity, it becomes a part of the chain of causes and effects leading up to our actions. It can do so in the explicit knowledge that we are the consequence of our nature and our nurture, whilst making allowance for the inappropriateness of punishment in the case of, for example, mental illness affecting our ability to reason and foresee the consequences of our actions.
Our everyday moral code is likewise a part of the cause and effect chain. It usually has the effect of promoting cooperation and so the functioning of society in a more general sense. Steven Pinker's analysis of the reduction in war and violent crime over the centuries, shows that it all seems to be doing a pretty good job. Clearly, though, it is an evolutionary adaptation. Religion, as distinct from secular morality, however, has to claim a different modus operandi. It cannot claim to be merely a feedback mechanism even when actually resulting in “better” actions. It has to claim that our choices can somehow be made non-randomly, but independently of deterministic constraints and that we should be judged accordingly. When the theologians come up with a cogent explanation of what that actually means, I shall be interested to hear it. But in the meantime, I am happy to say that freewill is simply not my problem. For a fuller description of the difficulties thrown up by freewill, please click here.
The real basis of our morality
Our empathy, our wish for fairness, group pressure and our reciprocal altruism are the source of our relativistic moral code. We should not though forget that these emotions are all subject to our critical consideration using our reason. We can consider the likely end-results of our actions and these will affect the decisions taken.
So then even without the benefit of God, there is still, in the vast majority of us, a wish to act according to a moral code. It comes quite naturally to us. But although emotionally motivated, it can be rationally controlled, unlike its absolute counterpart.
The success of the concept of an absolute moral code
The absolutists have in fact always been fighting a rearguard action to convince others that they were right. We were never very inclined to be good in the way the Church or other religions wanted us to be or to observe the rituals demanded of us. It went against human nature - as indeed they kept telling us. Hence the need for their continual exhortations and threats of hell to get us to do as we were told. In practice, though, there was the absolute morality being preached from pulpits and then there was the peoples' morality derived from our humanity, our sense of empathy and fairness which, where it has clashed with rigidly imposed religious rules from another age, has ultimately pushed them to one side. This was relativism in action. The contemporary reluctance of ordinary people to take the Church's dogmatism too seriously can be seen in the low birth-rate in Italy and other Catholic countries since the advent of easily available and effective birth-control. The same is true of a number of Muslim countries, including that most Muslim of countries, Iran. This democratic, relativistic, form of morality has in fact forced Christianity, at least, to change over the centuries in line with secular thinking, although homosexuality still seems to be a bit of a problem for them to get their heads around.
But the idea that there is such a thing as absolute morality is still there and so, as a meme, it must be admitted to have been very successful over the ages. This, despite its obvious incoherence granted that we keep demanding and getting changes to it. We seem, though, to want or find comforting the idea of a morality which is bigger than the individual. Organised religion is following the unpopularity of extreme absolute codes in Europe and is itself declining. It is, however, being replaced at least in part by a feeling that there is something which demands our obedience, although we're not quite sure what it is and we feel free to interpret its demands as we wish. Organised religion is being replaced by an amorphous, self-defined belief in 'spirituality'.
I suspect that the reason for this is not only that we would all (?) like to think that we will live forever in some kind of heaven, but also that most people see a disjunction between the generally accepted requirement for morality and the suggestion that our morality has no higher force behind it to give it the right to rule our lives. They cannot see how that can work and so take refuge in the self-contradictory ideas just described.
This incomprehension results from the fact that the vast majority of people do not understood that our survival as a society and ultimately as a species would be threatened if we failed to act as we do. If they did, then perhaps their need for the artificiality of absolutism would melt away in favour of the absolute need to act morally in order to assure our own survival.
We find ourselves, therefore, in a situation where the concepts of neither absolute nor relativist morality as discussed by theologians and philosophers over the millennia have as much relevance in the real world as they would like to think.
Absolutist morality comes in many forms at the same time and these are subject to periodic change, because society demands it. So then they cannot really be said to be absolute. Having lost their only raison d'être, they have no right to compel our obedience.
Relativistic morality has no rights over us either. To the extent, however, that it moves away from what is required for the survival of society then, eventually, evolutionary pressure can reasonably be expected to bring about the necessary course correction. And because of its evolutionary underpinnings, it is far less laissez-faire and more resistant to wild swings than one might expect. Its implementation is undoubtedly variable and has not always produced brilliant results. In this democratic age, however, our tolerant moral code commands general acceptance because we are the ones who define it and so it can move more easily with the times.
Now, whether there are other, non-moral, paradigms which could assure our survival as a species is difficult to say: certainly any others which may have appeared over the millions of years of our existence don't seem to have stood the test of time. Stephen Pinker tells us that this is an age when violence, particularly in Europe, is at an all-time low, in contrast to when the Church was a real power. In the UK and in Europe generally, crime is at an historic low. I guess that that, in turn, means that we may be reasonably confident that the relatively tolerant and peace-loving society in Europe which we have at the moment is a pretty good approximation to what we need for our continued survival. And if this is so, then it looks as though our relativist morality has served us very well indeed, despite the drag on its development caused by the absolutists.
should get out there and explain it better.
1. Matthew 5: 17 - 19
17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. 21 Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.
Joshua 8:1,2 & 24 27
And the Lord
said to Joshua, “Do not fear or be dismayed;
take all the fighting men with you, and arise,
go up to Ai; see, I have given into your hand
the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and
his land; 2 and
you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to
Jericho and its king; only its spoil and its
cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves;
lay an ambush against the city, behind it.”
24 When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took as their booty, according to the word of the Lord which he commanded Joshua.
18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.
Leviticus 25:44 46; Joshua 9:23
44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.
6. See e.g. this extract from the Papal Bull 'Romanus Pontifex' of Pope Nicholas V (1454) -
Complete text here: http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-romanus-pontifex.html
7. Click here for paper regarding research on vampire bats
8. For summary see -
Paul J Buckingham 2017