Entries from September 2010 ↓

Presentation: What Is Morality?


I want to talk about ‘what is morality?’, both myth and reality. This talk is not about how you should behave: I’ll leave that to theologians, philosophers, and social reformers (and, perhaps, humanists). Each of us has a perspective of the world, through which we try to make sense of ourselves and things that happen to us. This is often referred to as a world-view from the German Weltanshauung. Tonight, I want to examine one aspect of that perspective, the moral world-view. My talk will be in two parts. Firstly, I want to survey three different ‘takes’ on morality, that of religion (evangelical Christianity), philosophy (modern analytical philosophy), and psychology (social psychology). And, secondly, I shall present a framework that attempts to explain the presence of varied moral practices around the world in light of our common biological evolution and our diverse cultural backgrounds. [Refer to handouts.] 

What is morality?

Necessity of God

In March, 2010 Richard Dawkins appeared on ABC television program Q&A[1]. This was part of his lead-up to being the keynote speaker at the World Atheist Convention in Melbourne. An audience member asked the following question that assumed the necessity of God for morality.

 HAMZAH QURESHI: My question is for Professor Dawkins. Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong? [Notice the assumptions in his question: God is necessary for absolute morality (I probably agree with this), which is necessary for deciding right from wrong (I disagree with this).]

By the way, Dawkins’ unsurprising response was questioning which parts of the Bible give us the morality he speaks of. By ‘cherry-picking’ scriptures, traditional Christians so often embrace palatable passages as universal truths and reject the unpalatable ones as simply reflecting past times.

In an earlier debate between Paul Kurtz and John Frame[2] titled Do We Need God To Be Moral? , Frame argued:

Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt they exist. A witness to a crime sees the criminal and the victim, but what is perhaps most important remains invisible – the moral evil of the act. Yet evil is unquestionably there, just as moral good is unquestionably present when a traveler stops to help the stranded motorist on a dangerous stretch of highway.”

John Frame quite eloquently objectified harmful acts as evil, nicely tapping into our intuitions about human behaviour. Frame then continued in the debate to assume the separate existence of evil as self-evident and linked that to the necessity of God to explain the reality of moral good and evil.

George W. Bush regularly claimed that he was commissioned by God to rid the world of the evil of terrorism. In a 2005 BBC series Palestinian ministers claimed Bush said, ‘God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’[3]

As the website CommonDreams.org commented:

From the outset he has couched the “global war on terror” in quasi-religious terms, as a struggle between good and evil. Al-Qa’ida terrorists are routinely described as evil-doers. For Mr Bush, the invasion of Iraq has always been part of the struggle against terrorism, and he appears to see himself as the executor of the divine will.

For traditional Christians, God/Jesus is both a moral role model and moral rule-maker. As a ruler-maker he: (1) defines right from wrong; (2) shows the behaviour and beliefs necessary to be good (usually through scriptures); and (3) gives us motivation to be moral in this world. Virtues for Christians are humility, compassion, and discipleship with an eye to a future reconciliation with God in this world or the next. Many Christians feel morally obligated to evangelise, to bring the ‘good news’ to others.

Contrast this to Judaism: ‘Judaism does not subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, but believes each human being to be born with the potential for doing both good and evil. The individual has to bear the responsibility for his or her actions and life becomes a struggle between the inclination to good and the inclination to evil.[4]

Morality as Reasoning and Logic

Western philosophy presents a different view of ethics and morality, one based on human reasoning. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have sought to find a few abstract rules to apply to all moral situations, to allow a kind of moral puzzle-solving. Should you remove the life-support from a person in a coma who has little or no chance of regaining consciousness?

Both popular ethical frameworks, utilitarianism – goodness is evaluated on outcomes – and deontology – correct application of universal rules (concerned with intent rather than outcome), seek to find and apply common abstract laws to all moral situations and dilemmas. Ethical thinking is almost a process of logical decision-making, a rational process of sorting through the choices and their implications. Unfortunately these approaches, in their simplicity, can lead to morally unintuitive solutions – killing one to benefit many or telling the truth to lead to even greater harm.

This almost formulaic approach contrasts with an earlier view of seeking to identify and emulate the qualities of a virtuous person. Virtue ethics, as it is called, was dominant in Greek and Roman times and even into the early Middle Ages. There has been some revival in recent times. Typical qualities of virtue were wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Morality was seen as complex and learnt over a long period by emulating the actions of the virtuous, by doing rather than analysing.

Human behaviour and Morality

Modern psychology tells us a different, more complex, story about our behaviours, reactions, and moral intuitions.

Firstly, much to the surprise of many, we actually handle most daily interactions with our environment, including others, automatically and outside of our own self-awareness. Emotional responses and feelings give us some feedback on these interactions. The subconscious has evolved over millions years to respond efficiently and rapidly to a diverse range of stimuli. In computer terms, it is adept at parallel processing. Unfortunately, like all large, highly structured objects, our subconscious is very slow and ‘reluctant’ to change – it is subject to considerable psychological inertia. Furthermore, due to evolutionary demands, our subconscious takes a negative view of the world, alert to any potential physical and social threats, real or imagined. In social terms, personal slights, diminished position and power, increased constraints, in fact, anything that may threaten our well-being is quickly picked up on the subconscious radar as potential threats. As you can imagine, this makes sense in evolutionary terms. It is better to have potentially false positives by running away from a bush moving in the wind than staying around to be another animal’s next meal.

Our consciousness evolved much later to support our subconscious processing, to give us the evolutionary advantages of planning, organisation, and conceptualisation. Compared to our subconscious, our consciousness is rather limited, in being able to concentrate on one thing at a time (despite female claims) and for limited spans of time. Again, in computer terms, it is limited to single-tasking and, probably, is still in beta.

So, a more realistic way of seeing the relationship between our subconscious and our consciousness is, perhaps, using the metaphor of our all-powerful subconscious as an ‘elephant’ with our consciousness considered to be its ‘rider’. The rider cannot directly force an elephant to do certain tasks through a battle of wills alone. It requires years of training of the elephant by the rider, and experimental evidence suggests something similar applies to us. So at different times the rider and elephant can work together as a well-oiled team and, at other times, they can be at odds.[5]

Some possibilities for this retraining our elephant appear to be the longer-term approaches of meditation and cognitive therapies and, even, short-term strategies with drugs like Prozac (of course with all its potential side-effects). Each approach seeks to re-train or change the ways the elephant works. Even changing one’s environment, like banning all fattening foods from a household as part of weight reduction program, takes a similar approach. By the way, this idea of change is not new and has been reflected in many traditions. Buddhism comes to mind as one that has always sought to challenge our concept of ‘conscious control’.

Secondly, we have a wonderful ability to overestimate our morality while being critical, perhaps hypercritical, of others. (Matthew 7:3 ‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s* eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?’[6])  Even when researchers highlighted this to participants, they saw that as useful for spotting how others fooled themselves. Perhaps the rider is also our P.R. consultant, spinning our most acceptable life-story.

Thirdly, we often oversimplify violence as between the all-good and the all-evil with the victim as totally innocent and the perpetrator as totally culpable.  We automatically assume the victim’s view represents the ‘real’ situation, while research shows a typically more complicated reality. Bush’s war on terror was filled with these over-simplifications, leading to many tragic consequences.[7]

Here are some other experimental results of psychology that question our notion of conscious moral decision-making:

  • We rationalise many of our moral reactions, even though the explanations have often little to do with the situation under question. Experimenters deliberately posed morally problematic situations but with no obviously harmful outcomes. Case studies, involving eating human flesh and sibling sex, caused strong moral reactions where participant justifications are challenged by the experimenters. Participants changed their objections until finally admitting to having no plausible reasons. ‘It just is.’ The rider now becomes the lawyer rationalising our automatic reactions.
  • Researchers have discovered the influence of ‘priming’ on our attitudes and reactions. Experiments of selective word-games with deliberate word associations demonstrably affect the subsequent attitudes of subjects without their awareness. Even hot and cold can affect our responses to people. [Discuss relevant experiments.]
  • Twins experiments demonstrate the significant role of genetics in our reactions to others across all our traits. …the “giggle twins” (so-called because they “laugh and fold their arms the same way”), Barbara Herbert and Daphne Goodship spent the first four decades of their lives apart. In the time following their reunion, they’ve discovered some remarkable parallels in their lives — both had miscarriages followed by the birth of two boys and then one girl.[8]

So, perhaps, David Hume, Scottish philosopher (1711-1776), was correct from the perspective of psychology in saying, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”[9] [10]

Summarising the Moral Views

What does all this mean for morality? Ironically, religion and modern philosophy are similar in seeking to apply universal rules to our moral lives, rules independent of individuals and cultures. On the other hand, religion and psychology both propose long-term strategies for shaping moral lives through rules, principles, and practice. However, unlike other views, psychology recognises the fallibilities of our self-perceptions and influences of local cultures on moral intuitions. Each view makes very different claims of authority. Religion claims transcendental authority; philosophy claims universal reasoning; and psychology claims observed social behaviour.

What is morality? Is it transcendental rules or universal logic or part of culturally-based human behaviour?

What should we do? Should we obey divine laws or apply moral reasoning or train the ‘elephant’ to be virtuous?

Few Final Remarks

(1) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy takes a more nuanced and Earthly view, equating morality to more like a backyard game of baseball or cricket. It is public, informal with no arbitrating authorities, and replicated from yard to yard often with considerable variety.[11]

(2) Universal moral proclamations and observed human behaviour seem worlds apart. We observe an amazingly diverse range of moral practices across cultures, even within our own. Euthanasia, abortion, and same-sex marriages and adoptions all evoke strong, even violent, reactions within Australian society, let alone across the world. Do North African women circumcising their daughters, even violently, see themselves as being immoral or are they just doing what is right and necessary in their culture? I am sure the Twin Tower bombers considered themselves on a great moral crusade. (I apologise for the irony of the term ‘crusade’.)

Changes to our moral intuitions even happen over our lifetimes. For many today, homosexuality is not evil but an expression of personal choice, attempts to find happiness. Only a short time ago it was considered immoral and declared illegal across our society. On the other hand, tobacco smoking has moved from being chic to an almost that of a social and moral pariah with ghettos of smokers outside every work place.

(3)     We intuitively hold to many ‘folk’ notions about the world that are unsupported by evidence. The world is a battle ground of good and evil forces, where good strives to overcome evil. Our religious traditions have encapsulated this concept in their theologies. We also believe in some sort of universal justice or balance, where ultimately good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. This justice may be occur in this world or the next. So we often struggle to find meaning when the good appear to suffer unnecessarily.

 Moral Foundations Theory[12]

Jonathan Haidt (University of Virginia) with other researchers have proposed a framework to explain and understand the diversity of our moral intuitions. Haidt compares our moral intuitions to taste, where we have evolved capacity to distinguish between bitter, sweet, and sour and still have developed an endless variety of cuisines. Similarly with morality, we have evolved some common psychological states or moral potentialities that have been enabled and shaped by personal histories and cultures. However, unlike traditional liberal thinking about morality, Haidt argues that many cultures and communities place as much moral weight on group identity issues and bodily cleanliness as on individual well-being and rights. Let us work through the handout to learn more.

Thank you




[4] Carl S. Ehrlich, Understanding Judaism (London: Watkins Publishing, 2010)

[5] This metaphor was proposed and developed by Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/

[6] NRSV, http://bible.oremus.org/

[7]Roy F. Baumeister, Evil (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999)

[8]http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/life/genetic/twin1.htm How Twins Work

[9]David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (

[10]Positive Psychology, founded by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, is one attempt of applying psychological research to improving human fulfilment and happiness. Seligman says that Positive Psychology is ‘a science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions promises to improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless.’ http://www.bdp-gus.de/gus/Positive-Psychologie-Aufruf-2000.pdf

[11]The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd edn.  2006 ed. Robert Audi, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge p586

[12] See http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php for Moral Foundations Theory

Naturalism as a viable world-view (part 2)


Let us look at some foundational beliefs or truth claims of Naturalism.

Firstly, like most people, naturalists are realists, believing that there is an external reality independent of our thoughts and perceptions. So if we see a chair in a room, not believed to be an illusion, we assume the chair will still be in the room even after we have left. All this is uncontroversial as, overwhelmingly, most people hold the same view. It is worth noting that philosophers often distinguish between naive and critical realism with the former accepting perceptions ‘as is’ and the latter seeing our perceptions as heavily interpreted.

Interestingly, the opposite position of idealism sees our reality as a human (social) construction. Of course, this will be a more challenging concept for most. Before scoffing at even mentioning this alternative view, we need to recognise that without a god-eye’s view, independent of any particular world-view, we have no simple way of proving the truth of one view over another. That is why philosophical scepticism can so effectively question our fundamental assumptions about life, even something as fundamental as an independent external reality. However, perhaps, that discussion is better left for another time.

Secondly, naturalists believe we are part of a single reality that is both orderly and knowable, at least potentially. Unlike most religious world-views, Naturalism has no sense of the reality being inherently mysterious. Naturalists envision a single connected physical reality of mass and energy, existing in time and space (at least according to today’s best understandings), all derived from the same ontological ‘stuff’. This reality is often referred to as ‘nature’. I should note that the connections of nature are seen as strictly non-conscious in any sense we understand that term. Therefore, for consistency, naturalists reject any sense of a design, purpose, or meaning coming from some cosmic consciousness. Naturalists would see this as wishful thinking, a concern about being unloved in an unloving (and unlovable) universe, the well-known absurdity of existentialism. I am happy to explore that idea further during later discussion.

Therefore all causes and explanations of our existence and our experiences – behaviour, aspirations, feelings, self-conceptions, spirituality, and so on – are ultimately attributed back to physical causes, even if we do not yet understand those connections or associations. As soon as the body and brain stop processing, so does our self-awareness.

So how do we know about this physical world? We do this through human perception supported by human reason. It can be immediate – I see or hear now – or from memory – I perceived those things yesterday – or from the testimony of others – they told me of their perceptions. Of course the vast bulk of our knowledge is from the testimony of others as part of our shared social knowledge. Similarly our perceptions can be direct or through specially constructed instruments to enhance our perceptions. As an aside, we need to recognise that all perceptions are sense experiences, interpreted within our respective social and cultural contexts. No observation is made uninterpreted. Therefore, in philosophical terms, I would expect most naturalists to be empiricists with knowledge coming from those interpreted sense experiences of the external world. To quote a famous television series “the truth is out there”.

Therefore it is not surprising naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences, like natural sciences and most social sciences, as primary sources of information about the world. And why should this not be so? Of all our human projects, the modern sciences have provided the most reliable information about the world – much more reliable, for example, than the revelations of self-declared mystics over the years. And this is despite failings throughout its history. The success of the sciences over the last few hundred years has been, to no small measure, in using methods to reduce human bias, wishful thinking, and perceptual errors. Combining controlled experimentation, well-supported consistent reasoning methods, and open discussion with peer criticism, the sciences gather, analyse, and explain data very effectively about our world. Put simply, the sciences define the external reality for a naturalist, and the rest they consider to be human wishful thinking.

As the sciences are a foundational part of a naturalist’s world-view, let us look at the nature of science, even briefly. Science develops models to explain and understand the world we inhabit. Some areas of science require specialised mathematical languages to express concepts, where our everyday human languages are inadequate. This often leads to confusion when scientists use everyday terms metaphorically to explain their research areas. Religious terms, without their theological meanings, become popular metaphors to express their awe and wonderment. It becomes amusing when religious apologists then seize these opportunities to claim a scientist’s belief in god. In this context, another Einstein quotation comes to mind: ‘I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.’ And just for the record, Einstein wrote in a private letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, ‘The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

Although on-going scientific research leads to the questioning and adjusting of models, Thomas Kuhn famously showed that this model-making is itself set within and defined by the prevailing paradigm of the time, and that paradigm both frames the questions asked and guides research along particular pathways. So it is probably more realistic to see science as socially-based intellectual activities and to treat “objective” knowledge as something more akin to commonly accepted social knowledge, arrived through agreed observational methods supported by special reasoning techniques. Do not get me wrong. The social nature of science does not reduce its efficacy and the force of science’s explanatory work. We just need to recognise that science is a part of our social enterprise rather than some sort of independent fact-driven objective process. Sometimes these two conflicting views of science are contrasted it as archaeology, uncovering facts, versus human construal, making human-constructed models. Finally, another way of considering this is to see science as dealing with transitory scientific objects rather than the more enduring external objects themselves. So, over time, the ‘sun’ as a scientific object varies as our understanding of the sun varies, but the ‘sun’ as an external object is still essentially the same sun. All this could be summarised with the aphorism, ‘the map is not the territory’; often associated with Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics.

Today science is almost unquestioned in its knowledge-making about the external world. But how does it deal with our inner world – the world of consciousness, free-will, the self, and sensed spirituality? The explanations of neuroscience, for example, involving neurons and synapses seem unsatisfying to most and fail to capture the essential human qualities we associate with them. Though naturalists believe that all human experiences have physical causes, they too often want to describe and explain consciousness, for example, in terms other than its underlying physical processes.

It is worth here drawing a distinction between reductive materialism and Naturalism. Reductionism is the process of understanding the whole by examining its parts, and this methodology has been and continues to be a very successful analytical approach for most sciences. Therefore a radical reductionist would seek to reduce all human experiences to physical descriptions and explanations, such as body-brain processes. In their world, mind states and mental processes do not exist. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California who promotes eliminative materialism – a radical form of reductionism, is famous for describing and explaining consciousness and other ‘I’ aspects of ourselves as brain processes to rid us of myths like the ‘mind’ and the ‘soul’.

Many naturalists are comfortable describing our inner world in language not directly linked to physical causes. They will even entertain such concepts as emergent properties to acknowledge that there may be higher-level properties not directly attributable to, but still dependent on, specific physical processes. Perhaps, this is analogous to discussing the aesthetics of a chair without referring to its sub-atomic particle structure. However, it should be stressed that ultimately naturalists still regard all human experiences as having necessary underlying physical causes and nothing else. So a naturalist may be comfortable attending a yoga class for health benefits but would reject any talk of extra-physical explanations with mysterious energy forces and universal connections.

So what are some implications for a commitment to an empirical understanding of the world, especially from that of science?

Truth is out there: whatever it is. A naturalist sees a single physical reality, best understood by our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, most social sciences, historical research, and so on. The resulting knowledge-base – ever-growing, critically-evaluated (and re-evaluated) – is then the best bulwark we have against human wishful thinking, religious delusions, and wild shamanistic claims. (Of course, we are familiar with now famous semi-religious claims of Steve Jobs for his iPad that, obviously, got through this guard.) This knowledge-base can and will change regularly both at the margins and sometimes in fundamental ways from the on-going research and, perhaps surprisingly, from changing social contexts.

Critics of Naturalism see its weakness as depending on something so changeable and provisional as scientific understanding. It is true that speculations, questioning, and changes are significant at the frontiers of science – the very small of Quantum Physics, and the very large and very distant of Cosmology. Fortunately the vast majority of scientific knowledge is highly stable and usable. Even though this is so, we still need to leave claims of certainty and absolute truth to the imaginings of Evangelical pastors. Again, Einstein said, ‘…shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.’

What about me? Appealing to our empirically-based knowledge seems least satisfying for relating the perceived significance and reality of our inner worlds. An aside is useful here. We can see our relationships with others in ‘person’ perspectives. I am my first person; you are my second person; and he, she, they or it are my third person. (Some theologians argue that religions are about second-person relationships with god, while naturalists see all of religions meeting strictly first-person needs.) The empirical sciences describe the world in strictly third-person terms to retain independence of any particular view. On the other hand, our inner worlds are strictly first-person with only us having privileged access. We assume others have similar inner worlds by analogy from their behaviour – they sound and act as we do. As I have said, naturalists are committed the inner world coming from physical causes – it ends with the expiration of our physical bodies. Incidentally, our ability to simulate our inner-world feelings on demand with drugs and electrical stimulations supports this view.

However naturalists have no easy way of addressing people’s desire for some grand purpose, for feeling significant in a larger indifferent world. Naturalists have no mysterious beings, forces, and essences to evoke for placating our sensibilities. Religions grew out of that need with complex practices, beliefs, and creeds. On the other hand naturalists, unlike their eliminative cousins, will engage in emotion talk to access and enjoy those feelings in their own terms to give some inner purpose and happiness. By subscribing to physical causes, naturalists treat an empirically-based physical view as a “reality check” against extravagant extra-physical claims.

Morality is a social business. Unlike traditional religious people, naturalists see morality as a strictly human social affair having derived from biological evolution (giving us the common things), enculturation (giving us the multiple variations), and genetic inheritance. My handout, Naturalist Morality, [to discuss] shows some of the extensive inter-disciplinary work being done by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists today to describe and understand naturalistically the intuitions we call morality. The bottom line is that there are no absolute moral injunctions or laws given to us from outside our physical world. Ultimately, I would expect that there will be less ‘shoulds’ from Naturalists than many religionists. Hopefully, they would be less prescriptive about human behaviour than their religious counterparts.

Naturalist uncertainty versus Christian mystery. Both Naturalists and Christians recognise the finite nature of humans and, therefore, our inability to see the reality ‘as it is.’ (A question for discussion: should even talk about reality ‘as it is’, as our reliance on perceptions, ideas, and revelations make reality somewhat problematic?)

For Naturalists, using science as a primary source of knowledge, it is the recognition that all our perceptions are interpreted by physical processes, set within our personal, familial, and cultural histories. Scientific research is based on uncertainties and probabilities through the use of measuring instruments, observer involvement, and deriving generalisations through induction from the particulars. This is well-known and accepted in science and, even, celebrated by some.

For Christians and people of most religious traditions, the ‘mystery’ represents a permanent gap between claims of human understanding (knowledge derived from people) and claims of religious revelation (knowledge revealed from god through tradition). Faith is the acceptance of this mystery as a necessary part of the religious world-view. Christian claims of Jesus’ physical resurrection after his execution is seen a mystery, unquestioned and accepted by the faithful, but inexplicable by human knowledge and reason.

Perhaps, whereas the Naturalist sees uncertainty as a limitation of process and one to be continually tackled and questioned, a Christian would see the mystery as an inevitable part of belief in their religious traditions.

Seeking Happiness for a Naturalist

Finally, Naturalism offers no simple directions of how to achieve happiness, or even whether or not that is at all possible. Perhaps, one can do no better then look back to a very early Naturalist, Epicurus of fourth century BCE Athens, who had the following advice:

  1. Keep close contact with family and friends over your lifetime. Epicurus essentially started a friendship cult.
  2. Live a moderate, debt-free life (to reduce your worries).
  3. Leave time for personal reflection and contemplation.

Thank you.

News: The Pope should look inward

Benedict marked his arrival in Britian with an attack on secularism and atheism with the predictable Nazi comparison.  The Pope might be better turning his moral indignation inwards to the systemic child abuse by his fellow Catholic churchmen. Years of church denial and cover-ups should be of greater moral importance to humanity than his attempting to perpetuate their irrelevant superstitions. The Papacy hypocrisy must test even their Catholic saints!

See Guardian report below…


Alex McCullie