Morality, Survival and Religion

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Morality is a human construct, by and for humans. If not, we’d have to get it from a natural source . . . or a supernatural one. I’m an atheist, so a supernatural source isn’t a serious alternative to me. That leaves one alternative: Nature. But I can’t detect the slightest whiff of morality in nature. Mother nature is red in tooth and claw. She is indifferent to violence, suffering and killing. Survival is her prime directive. So, if there is morality to be found in nature, what else could it be based on? Can the imperative of survival provide an objective moral standard for humanity?

If survival does provide an objective moral standard for humanity, “survival of the fittest” ain’t it. We’re not that cut-throat or indifferent to suffering. We have empathy and a sense of fairness: probably written in our genes. So how could survival serve as an objective moral standard?

I think that survival COULD serve as an objective moral standard if it’s considered at all levels. By this I mean survival at the: genetic, individual, family, group, species and global levels. The idea here is that an act can be judged on its survival value at all these levels: the more value and the more levels that benefit, the more moral it could be considered.

But the problem with the survival-at-all-levels concept of morality is that it suffers the same weakness that all moral systems suffer from: Subjectivity. An objective moral standard is an ideal impossible for humans because humans are not, and can’t be, perfectly objective. We could try to adopt this moral standard but it’s implementation is certain to fail when we interpret survival values.

So morality — no matter where it comes from — will always be a matter of personal beliefs, priorities and biases. Human morality is subjective because humans are subjective.

Assuming a healthy mind, where does morality come from? I think we make it out to be more complicated than it really is. We develop our personal moralities from a combination of just two fundamental human characteristics: empathy and experience. From experience, I know what hurts me. Through empathy, I know the same things are likely to hurt you too. It’s the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because empathy is informed by experience, morality matures as we do. If we’re lucky, life lessons correct or reinforce our morals as we get older. If we’re unfortunate or downtrodden, life lessons can twist and corrupt our moral sensibilities.

The best religion can do with morality is to endorse some morals and condemn others. Historically, this has proven to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. Morality is what we say it is. As humanity advances, so does our morality. By “writing our morals in stone” as religions are wont to do, they fall behind the times. They become antiquated. In the Bible, not even Jesus was aware how human subjugation (women and slaves) is unfair and unkind. His morality was derived from the social milieu of his era and area. Religions don’t define or mold morals: they usurp them.

It’s not a very satisfying answer but there is no objective moral standard that humanity could actually implement successfully. Morality is subjective. It’s an inherent property of the human condition.


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