Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reasonable Ethics

As one Christian website put it, “moral values do not derive from human experience. Moral values come from the one who knows us best and knows what is best for us-our creator, God. If moral values derived from human experience, we would be living in a chaotic world. We'd never know what was right and what was wrong, because moral values would change as human experience changed.”[1] However, we Secular Humanists understand that it is easy to be good without any gods, and often reason can lead us to be even more ethical than many theists. We are Good without God

Humans are Innately Good

As I explained in my posts regarding groupishness and the evolution of morality, humans evolved the capacity to be moral because it improved the chances of our ancestors’ survival. The earliest humans evolved within social environments, and we gained pro-social characteristics to promote the survival of our groups. When groups survive, so do the genes of the group members. Given these adaptations, psychologically healthy humans are innately moral. In fact, studies have shown that even babies have a rudimentary sense of justice and of right and wrong.[2]

The Need for Moral Codes

As I explained in my post regarding the cultural evolution of religion, formalized moral codes came about in human societies as they became more complex. Our innate morality works well in small groups, but once a population surpasses 150 members, humans have a difficult time maintaining social harmony. Like small group morality, moral codes applied to large societies help promote their survival. This is because respect, honesty, and compassion lead to cooperation, which is vital to the survival of any social unit. For example, if a society allowed its people to lie, cheat, steal, and murder with impunity, it would likely produce a culture of fear, distrust, violence, and corruption. As a result, trade, production, and innovation would be stifled. In addition, the lack of social cohesiveness would be ruinous if the society were under attack by a military rival. In other words, immoral societies always fail in the long run if they do not change.

The Exposure Effect

Sure moral codes and our innate morality may work to promote social harmony within our own culture, but what about tolerance toward other cultures?  The answer: our society evolved the virtue of tolerance toward those outside our immediate peer groups because we became exposed to them. Studies have shown that mere exposure to individuals from other cultures increases our tolerance of those cultures.[3] This is because we’re ultimately the same species, and despite our differences, we all have things we share in common. Thus, exposure allows people from differing cultures to identify and empathize with one another. As society progressed, it placed a greater value on multicultural tolerance as more differing cultures interacted. Today, as we learn about faraway places in books, on television, or on the internet, and as more people from across the world migrate to areas of economic opportunity, both the need for and the automatic fulfillment of cultural tolerance is achieved. Interest

Kindness, simply stated, is good for you. Given our innate capacity for empathy, we feel bad when other people feel bad, and feel good when others feel good. Thus, when we make others feel good, via empathy, we make ourselves feel good as well. In addition, most of us tend to think rather highly of our own moral virtue, and acting out on this virtue reinforces our own positive view of ourselves. Each of these forces combined are probably why acts of kindness have been shown to cause elevated levels of dopamine, creating an ecstatic sensation referred to as the “helper’s high.”[4] Studies have shown that helping others also releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which not only creates emotional warmth, but also promotes cardiovascular health.[5] Beyond the buzz, people think and act favorably to those who are kind to them, which can lead to stronger interpersonal relationships. Since strong friendships have been shown to have both physiological and psychological benefits, kindness again is good for your health.[6] Ethics

Humanist morality derives from a combination of consequentialist ethics and compassion. We ultimately seek to promote the positive well being of all conscious creatures.  Given that actions which lead to both suffering and life fulfillment can be studied scientifically, Humanists consider science to be the best source of knowledge regarding how we should live our lives. Since science consists of theories that change over time as we gain new knowledge, we understand that ideas regarding ethics and morality will continue to evolve. My favorite summary of Humanist ethics comes from philosopher Andy Norman:[7]

  1. All human beings possess dignity, worth and basic rights.
  2. We should strive to remake this world into one that affords every human being the opportunity for a rich, rewarding life full of joy and creative fulfillment, and as free as possible from pain and suffering.
  3. We stand a better chance of progressing toward this goal if we understand what really works to promote human flourishing.
  4. To gain this understanding, reason, science and critical inquiry must be given free rein [within reason] to discover the truth about the world, human nature, and what makes people happy.
  5. Moral codes function to protect freedoms, promote mutual cooperation and advance collective well being; they should be designed (and occasionally redesigned) with that in mind.
  6. Fear, dogma, superstition, blind faith, wishful thinking, supernatural “explanations,” and tribal or ideological loyalties should all be avoided, for they tend to close minds, block understanding, and de-motivate the critical inquiry necessary for scientific and moral progress.


Morality does not come from any sort of supernatural force or being. Instead, it is the natural result of our need for social harmony as a mechanism to promote the health and survival of our society. For Secular Humanists, we understand that reason and science can help us to understand how best to formulate our morality to maximize our collective well being.


Humanist Manifesto III

Morality Comes from God – Debunked Video

Objective Morality and Atheism Video

Eliciting Latent Humanism

How Low Intelligence is Associated with Social Conservatism and Bigotry

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