Comment: recommended readings on Morality






News: Three new CAE courses Feb-Apr 2011 – Historical Jesus, Views of Morality, and World-views

I’m running three courses Feb to Apr this year at the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne.

Centre for Adult Education: Melbourne


What is Reality?
We shall examine two competing ways of understanding reality. Naturalism with its strictly physical world-view and traditional Christianity with a divine creator and organiser. Since the 18th Century Enlightenment, western society has moved away from traditional Christian understandings to a more naturalistic view of existence. We shall compare the two views.

What is Truth?
Modernism (there are universally reasoned truth) and Post-modernism (we can have personal truths only) also compete with different explanations on the status of knowledge and truth. This conflict lead to the (in) famous science and history wars of the late 20th century.

5 sessions:
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 19/04/11, 03/05/11 to 24/05/11

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

Click to book

Centre for Adult Education, Melbourne

Explore the historical Jesus, separate from the figure of devotion. In doing so, review the use of Christian and non-Christian sources and treatment of miracle claims, society, political and religion of early first century Israel and Middle East, analysing the primary source – the Gospels, review of research from the past 300 years, how Jesus, the man, is profiled by today’s scholars.

Class details
5 sessions:
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 22/02/11 to 22/03/11

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

Click to book
Centre for Adult Education: Melbourne

We think about moral issues every day. Newspapers, television programs, and internet web-sites tell us what is immoral and moral.

Class details
5 sessions:
Tuesdays 7.30PM-9.00PM: 22/02/11 to 22/03/11

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

We explore two traditional foundations of Western moral attitudes – traditional Religious beliefs and Philosophical thinking – with the more-recent and challenging research of Moral Psychology and ask the questions, does morality exist? Can there be universal moral rules? How do we know right from wrong? What is evil? How does culture influence morality?

Click to book

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 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.

[6] NRSV,

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

[8] 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.’

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

[12] See for Moral Foundations Theory

Comment: Naturalism, Evangelical Christianity, & Free-Will

Naturalism views us as physical beings in a knowable physical world. As human perception supported by reasoning is seen as the best way to understand the world, Naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences – natural sciences and much of the social sciences – as primary sources of reliable data. Unlike reductive materialists, Naturalists are willing to discuss our ‘I’ aspects of our world – consciousness, free-will, and sense of self – without necessarily reducing them to physical brain processes. Many even see emergent properties and superveniences as ways of explaining our special ‘I’ properties independently of the underlying physical processes. However Naturalists still reject magical and mysterious explanations, no matter how couched in pseudo-scientific terms.
Evangelical Christianity sees a different reality to the physical realm of naturalism. We are in a perceivable physical world controlled by another more mysterious, all-pervasive reality – eternal, undetectable physically, conscious, all-powerful and, not surprisingly, intimately interested in humans as groups and individuals. Not surprisingly, evangelicals call this consciousness ‘God’. Again not surprisingly humans are special in being both physical and non-physical beings unlike all other living things. We have a ‘soul’.  Evangelical Christians seek to understand and comply with God’s demands through selected use of ancient Middle Eastern texts – their Christian biblical canon – as their foundation for living and moral judgements as well as the basis for their evangelising, their spreading the word.
Free-will, our making of unforced choices, is accepted as fundamental to our moral sense, societal control, and use of punishment. For most of us the belief in human free-will is unquestioned. Our law even reflects this attitude. However we live in a physical world best described in causal terms with events explainable by examining the effect of prior events. So is our free-will the one and only uncaused exception throughout the 4 billion year history of Earth? Philosophers have worried about this apparent contradiction for ever since they have been philosophising.
Not surprisingly philosophers respond with (1) full-blown free-will acceptance, (2) free-will scepticism, and (3) compatibilism with the latter being a scaling down of free-will enough to meet our societal needs.  As there seems to be a fundamental incompatibility between an unfettered free-will and our understanding of a physical world and a naturalist is committed to all experiences coming from the physical world, he or she seems likely to advocate free-will scepticism (‘it’s an illusion’) or to a scale-downed free-will of compatibilism (‘just enough for some moral responsibility’). Uncaused free-will seems an unlikely choice with an assumed human physicality.
The Evangelical Christian has a more packaged solution to this dilemma. God gives us uncaused free-will with the total ‘soul’ package. This is a necessary in a world-view that advocates salvation from freely choosing God (through their doctrines of course). So it is not surprising that the evangelical would hold the view that transgressors can be and should be rightfully be punished. It is so simple. Fortunately most people in Australia, the 92% who do not attend a Christian church regularly, probably see morality as primarily a human affair although they may seek inspiration from beliefs about God and Jesus.
One could expect different attitudes to social justice and crime and punishment between Evangelical Christians and Naturalists. The evangelical would have a more defined sense of right and wrong and the necessary consequences of people choosing to do wrong (or evil to use their term). Punishments can be justifiably swift and harsh. Naturalists have little choice to question simple ‘he did wrong’ style of punishment. How much was he truly free to make a choice must loom large in the naturalist world-view? There are many reasons for punishment and incarceration and these must be worried about to avoid knee-jerk reactions of choosing wrong and punishment.
Upon reflection unfettered free-will in our causal world is problematic and Naturalists have no recourse to a simple religious response to the contradiction. But perhaps that is the cost for our species becoming mature enough to deal with ourselves in the world.
Alex McCullie

News: More Morality & Brain Links

Australian ABC Science reports that neuroscience continues to link brain function and human moral behaviour with God’s involvement becoming more and more a fantastic speculation. This time it is magnetic effects on moral choices from Massachusetts Institute of Technology research with similar results to loading the brain while making moral choices. Under load and magnetism, apparently, we turn to choices based on outcomes more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Again this seems choosing between the utilitarian and deontological ethical systems.

Alex McCullie

News: A.C. Grayling on Cherie Blair

Great AC Grayling article at Richard Dawkins site about the ‘morality’ of Cherie Blair’s decision to be lenient on a religious (Muslim) assaulter of another. Would we treat the surviving 9/11 perpetrators with some leniency for also being religious, which they certainly were?

Alex McCullie

Comment: Non-Theist Morality Link

Reuter’s FaithWorld blog, listed here on the right, has an article suggesting that our concepts of “morality” and our noblest thoughts may actually have basic physical causes. This must be so shocking for many!

Even in the early twenty-first century we still pander to inflated egos, deluding ourselves about being more than physical purely to explain our lofty pretentions – noble thoughts, moral principles and spirituality. The implications of evolution are quite simple. We are one of many living things existing within a larger physical world and everything we have, comes from that simple proposition. There is no denying we have remarkable brains capable of complex processing – physical processing. However there is no ghost in the machine (thank you Gilbert Ryle).

Check the article: Is a moral instinct the source of our noble thoughts?

Alex McCullie

Link: Moral Animal Debate with Peter Singer

Here is a link to a debate with Peter Singer on Morality without God, hosted by Veritas Forum.

Alex McCullie

News: God-based Morality Is Dangerous

The Pope, as a primary spokesman for God-based morality, again demonstrates its immorality to people. It’s that thorny issue for God according to the Pope and the Roman Catholic church apparently, but for few others. Is it morally okay to use condoms to reduce HIV infection? According to the Pope on behalf of his God it is No.  The Pope is quoted in a Times article as saying

‘that contraception was “an offence against the law of God and nature”’ (full article here)

Morality is a human issue. We should not allow self-appointed spokespeople for invisible - many would say non-existent - deities to proclaim absurd moral laws to deliberately harm others.

Alex McCullie

News: Homosexuality is Wrong : Christian Blog

Here’s a link to a Christian blog that represents a commonly held view amongst evangelists that homosexuality is inherently evil. This article uses Christian bible quotations to refute an earlier Newsweek article that says Christians can rightfully believe that it’s okay to be gay. Well perhaps it’s not!

I think some religious people need to deal with their own sexual hangups rather than demonising others.

Alex McCullie