Ask a stupid question countdown... four

TodayChristian.net posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?

I love this question because it's one that desperately needs to be answered more often. There are certainly good answers out there but the answer is complicated. I can't offer up short silly appeals to authority like "You should do X because god commanded it." The arguments that explain where a secular morality come from are usually fairly long and involved, and to do it convincingly you need to build the argument gradually from the ground up. So you typically find them in books (The Moral Landscape, The Moral Animal, Non Zero and Sense and Goodness Without God spring to mind) out of reach of people who crave soundbites. I'm unaware of a justification of secular morality which is both convincing and short.

The short answer to your question is:

We get our morals from the same place you do, we're just more honest about it.

Religion is not a source of morality, but rather a mechanism for solidifying the morality which already exists in society around it. Religion is merely a storehouse of morality it didn't invent. Unfortunately (as discussed in part ten) it also brings along a substantial amount of harmful superstition for the ride. Religion absorbs morality from society at large. When we saw a large "Christian" force pushing for the abolition of slavery in recent centuries, that wasn't a Christian movement. The central text of Christianity explicitly encourages the keeping of slaves and this is a period of history when god wasn't making any revelations (unless you count Joseph Smith and even he didn't get that memo). This is Christianity absorbing new moral lessons from the enlightenment and putting them into practice. So while the people making this moral progress happened to be Christians, this shouldn't be considered a Christian initiative. So we ought to go directly to the original source of morality so we can cut out the middle man.

Besides, it's not like religions have a stellar moral track record. They use holy books which enshrine all manner of barbaric practices including slavery, racism and sexism. They can be found throughout history committing horrible acts of violence to help convert people to the "right" religion. The vicious anti-gay laws spreading through Africa are directly descended from American Evangelical Christianity. The Catholic Church is on a constant crusade in the developing world to reduce women's rights and access to contraception. And I'm not going to bring up accusations of naughty priests but you can just assume that I would have.

To begin with, we need an agreeable definition of morality. Whereas I like Richard Carrier's working definition "Morality is that which we should want to do above all else" it takes a fair amount of philosophical wrangling to get from that rather abstract definition to our intuitive definition of morality. Religions do a very bad job of defining their terms (the better to evade and obfuscate when their beliefs come into question) so it's hard to pin down exactly what they're talking about. The best working definition I've ever been able to come up with from a religious perspective is "morality means doing what god tells you to do, or your best guess of what you think god would want you to do". This is a useless definition, first because the very existence of god is in question and it's difficult to do what a fictional character tells you, but also because even if he does exist, we still don't have a clear method of communicating with god and the scant revelations we have from him in the forms of holy text are vague and contradictory so no reasonable person can be expected to know what god wants him to do with any degree of certainty.

Instead I'll use what is basically the definition from The Moral Landscape: Morality is that set of behaviours that enhances the wellbeing and flourishing of conscious creatures. You can defend why this is a good definition at some length (in fact Sam Harris wrote an entire book about it, well worth your time) but I'll be a little stubborn and say that if you want to object to the definition, all you have to do is find something we ought to value more than the wellbeing and flourishing of conscious creatures and then we can have a discussion. Until then, if you don't find this a valid and useful definition, you're probably not sitting at the grownup table.

Even the religious should accept this definition. The existence of a god and the various after-life options that come with him just affects how we calculate well being. We can keep the same definition and just factor in the joy of hell and the torment of heaven into our reasoning. But for the moment, I can safely ignore them for reasons that will become clear in question three.

With the definition, you can start to build a moral code. I'll construct it from my own point of view, but you should be able to see how it works for you. You have to begin by observing some empirical facts about the world around you. In particular some facts, which I hope will be non-controversial:

  1. I exist
  2. My wellbeing is affected by the world around me
  3. Other people in the world exist
  4. Other people in the world are (in broad terms) extremely similar to me. We have many common needs (oxygen, water, food) and many common desires (not dying, not being sick, not being in pain, not being raped, not having our freedom restricted, ability to pursue individual interests) so the things that meet my needs and desires (increased availability of food, better quality medical care, laws that prevent killing people) are likely to meet those desires for other people as well.
  5. For whatever list of things that I might want (finding a suitable mate, learning quantum physics, having a cell phone, owning a house) the single most important thing that will lead to me having those things is being part of a society where I cooperate with those other people. (After all, I'm not smart enough to reinvent the wheel on my own.)

That's it!

You have the ingredients for a complete moral code. All the basics fall out of it with hardly any effort at all. You want to have a society that encourages cooperation and discourages things like murder, theft, rape all by making observations of the world around you and applying a little enlightened self interest.

But there's one more ingredient required for a truly robust secular moral code. It's called Game Theory. It's a field of study in economics which is centred upon how to make decisions with incomplete information. The reason they look at games is because in a competitive game your opponent is unlikely to announce what his next move will be in advance.

The most fundamental study in game theory is the legendary and terribly named "Prisoner's Dilemma". It's framed in terms of punishments but it can be reframed in terms of rewards and could be called the Cooperation Game™.

Imagine two players working on a project. Each one has two options: cooperate or cheat. This leads to four possible outcomes: coop-coop, coop-cheat, cheat-coop and cheat-cheat. The worst outcome for both is cheat-cheat, since nothing gets done. The best overall outcome for both is coop-coop. However there is a serious problem. If one cooperates and the other cheats, the other can reap the reward without any work. This could be anything from not doing your share of the work on a science project to killing the team members on the science project and taking the credit. So there is a motivation to cheat. And both players have a motivation to cheat. So the "logic" of the game seems to push both players into cheating and therefore towards the worst possible outcome.

This is the reason the questioner probably has such a hard time imagining a secular morality. The desire to cheat is so obvious and so tantalizing. Plus the logic seems so airtight but for one important fact: This is not the way the world works. People don't come together for a single interaction and never meet again. We see the same people over and over again in our lives. And those people can talk, gossip... share information. So the costs and benefits of the game change. Because if you play the game and cooperate, that will gain you access to more opportunities to play the game. And if more people are cooperating, more people will be reaping the benefit of the cooperate-cooperate outcome. And those people will talk and will be avoiding those people that chose the cheat option because it's much better to play with known cooperators.

This is a gross oversimplification. Assuming you had the patience and a strong math background, you could work it out for more options including varying degrees of cooperation or even not playing but the basic framework should be clear:

The longer and more often you plan to play the game (the more people you plan to interact with in society and the longer you plan to live) the more you should prefer to choose the cooperate option and want to avoid the cheat option.

This is the perverse truth about morality which is deeply upsetting. Moral behaviour is firmly grounded in selfishness! This means the prescriptive rules that come out of it (do your best to avoid killing, raping, stealing and lying, don't try to own other people, get over your obsession with anal sex) are extremely robust.

But why?

I hope you found my (very brief and very rough) outline of secular morality at least vaguely compelling. One point of curiosity is it rests on fairly recent innovations. Game theory is only a few decades old. We've had these moral codes (with their flaws) for thousands of years. How did our ancestors develop these codes without the benefit of these sophisticated tools?

The answer is evolution - the ultimate trial and error machine. Because the fact that cooperation works is woven into the laws of physics and leads to real survival advantages in the real world, evolution was bound to discover it eventually. We can see the evidence of primitive versions of these characteristics present in our closest primate relatives who got them without the benefit of language, philosophers or divine revelation. If the behaviour is beneficial, evolution will favour it over time. Teamwork is beneficial. There you are.

This is an important point to clarify - one that I think many people get wrong. Evolution is not the source of our morality, it's merely the mechanism through which we discovered our morality. The source of morality is a deeper physical principle which is so deep it basically underpins all multicellular life: if you want to survive and flourish, you need to assemble cooperatively in groups.

What about all that other stuff?

There are lots of questions that Christians consider central to morality like gay marriage, maintaining a series of repressive rules surrounding sex, and trying to find ways to force other people to pray to their god in various public places.

The unavoidable consequence of tuning into this more refined view of morality is noticing all the parts of morality that religions get wrong. So things like telling other people who they're allowed to marry, telling women they shouldn't have access to certain jobs, educational opportunities or wardrobe choices, or placing ridiculous restrictions on how to have sex can immediately be seen as immoral. They may have seemed like a good idea at the time and gotten accidentally included in some book or other, but a simple examination of evidence bears out the fact that they are harmful.

This is why I think religious apologists object so fiercely to the possibility of a secular morality. Not only do they have to admit that they were wrong about the source of morality, they must simultaneously admit their own immorality. It's a tough thing to have to admit, but we'll continue pushing gently but firmly.

Stay tuned for question three...