Why be moral?

I’d like to know this so I can explain to people in religion and so I understand us and other atheists better:

If there is no afterlife, why do people stay moral (by our society’s standards) I understand there is a punishment, people could shun/hate you, jail, no friends, being betrayed or killed if you are too dangerous, etc. and guilt which is why I stay moral from a secular viewpoint, but if you had no time left to live or could get away with something why would you choose not to do it? I’d avoid it personally but if there is no punishment, why wouldn’t someone? I am not declaring that atheists are immoral people, we can uphold morals greatly sometimes even more-so than those in religion, and religion has made people do loads of bullshit.

So why do we stay moral? especially if there is no way we would get caught?

Posted: October 25th 2010

bitbutter www

You say that you’d tend to avoid behaving in ways that you consider immoral, even if you knew you’d suffer no negative consequences (except guilt presumably). I believe most people are the same as you in this respect, and that the answer to why these people do 'the right thing’ even when they can get away with doing 'the wrong thing’ will be the same as the answer to why you are motivated to be good.

There are of course strong instrumental reasons to 'be good’ in most situations. For instance maintaining a good reputation is very important in helping you achieve your goals in the future. If a person is considered to be a cheat or an aggressor, people may well be less likely to help this person (except perhaps out of fear). Because cheating in situations in which we can’t 'get away with it’ can have such heavy costs, we can hypothesise that there could have been a selection pressure for humans to develop a general policy of 'doing the right thing’, which is so powerful that it strongly influences our behaviour even when we know no one is watching. In general the cost, in inconvenience, of 'doing the right thing’ when no one’s watching, is much smaller than the cost of 'doing the wrong thing’ when people are watching, so it might be better to have an hyperactive moral sense, than a sluggish one.

People might still have the feeling that biological explanations of morality aren’t satisfying, especially if they’re used to the idea that their moral preferences reflect transcendent truths. The simple solution to that, I think, is to thoroughly get over the idea that our moral preferences reflect transcendent truths! There’s no good reason to believe that they do.

This youtube reading of Axelrod and Hamilton’s 'The Evolution of Cooperation’ explains how cooperation can be adaptive despite apparent problems suggested by game theory. It might be interesting for you.

Posted: October 26th 2010

See all questions answered by bitbutter


We stay moral because it is the right thing to do. Behaving in a specific way even if there was no possibility of getting caught is the essence of moral behavior.

Or, to put it another way, morality is about choices, and more specifically, choices that do not benefit you (with the exception of feeling good when you behave in a moral manner). Morals are inherently something you define.

Many theists – especially Christians – are very confused about morals. They have this mistaken belief that morality is what their religion says is moral, but that is just about following the rules. Not stealing because God says it is wrong isn’t any different than not stealing because it’s illegal – in both cases you are doing what somebody else tells you to do because you are avoiding the punishment.

I choose not to drive at excessive speeds on empty roads in good conditions. This is not a moral choice – there’s nothing immoral about speeding (say, at 80 MPH) in those conditions, but I don’t want to risk the penalty.

As a better answer to your question, look for some books or articles on the evolution of morality. There’s a firm basis for why humans behave the ways that we do.

Posted: October 25th 2010

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

brian thomson www

You partly answered your own question when you said “(by our society‚Äôs standards)”: according to the Biblical account, people had no moral standards before Moses went up a mountain and came back down with a couple of stone tablets. (Wouldn’t you go a bit nuts if you were lost in a desert?) You need only look at the “ten commandments” to see how they reflected the moral preoccupations of Moses and other tribal elders at the time.

But that account was about one wandering tribe, and ignores everything else happening in the world. By the standards of the Egyptians, from whose clutches the Israelites reportedly escaped. keeping slaves was moral; and yet slavery is never condemned in the Bible, even though an escape from slavery is central to the history of the Israelites. It takes quite a bit of cherry-picking to call the Bible a guide to morals today.

You also ask about “getting away with” something: what does that mean? What are the consequences of one’s actions? The late comedian Bill Hicks used to talk about going out in to the desert, taking mushrooms, tripping out, then going back to work the next day. Did he get away with it at the time? Yes. What effect did it have on other people? None. Were there consequences for him? Possibly: he died of pancreatic cancer in his early 30s. Is there a moral proscription against taking mushrooms and tripping out? Depends on your culture, doesn’t it? But why do some cultures have rules against some things? Because of the impacts those things had on other people. “Morals” really do come down to that: if actions had no impact, there would be no reason to get “moral” about them.

There are people who do things without any thought for the impact their actions have on other people, and we call them sociopaths. If you aren’t a sociopath, then the consequences of your actions for you are not limited to getting “caught” – not even if it’s your last day on earth. Are you being told that atheists can’t feel guilt, or remorse, or regret, just because we don’t get those things from the Bible? These basic human emotions, and concern for other people, were in evidence long before the stories told in the Bible. But if the Earth was about to blow up, then there would be no consequences – for you or anyone else – and so all bets would be off!

Posted: October 25th 2010

See all questions answered by brian thomson


So you are only moral because you do not want to be punished?

A large part of ethical thinking and attitudes stems from empathy. For example, my niece and nephew, aged respectively five and eight, wanted to take home some stones around an ancient monument in a public space. I told them to put them down. They defiantly asked why, and I said because they are not yours to take. They dropped those stones so fast. There was no threat of punishment, they got it that it is not right to take stuff that does not belong to you because it is not right. They just needed to have it spelled out for them in this specific case. They have already learned that taking stuff from a store shelf without paying is wrong, not because they will get punished, but because it is wrong.

Apply this to yourself, list the ethical decisions you made today and why? Was the majority of them based on your fear of punishment? Morality based on punishment is obscene and is not morality, it is fear.

We are hardwired to be ethical. Evolution gave us that. The selfish gene led to the altruistic society. Evolution also gave a mix of four out of every five people who abide by ethics. If those one out of five are not held back by earthly punishment, why would eternal punishment be any more a deterrent? Spending a long time in prison is hell.

Posted: October 25th 2010

See all questions answered by logicel

Mike the Infidel www

I think you may be asking the wrong question here. The question “why be moral” leaves us with the implication that morality would likely not occur in nature if there is nothing outside nature calling for moral behavior. Rather, you should ask “what causes us to be moral.” The evolutionary history of our species has ingrained us with an innate moral sense, combining empathy, reciprocity, altruism, and various other attributes which would help ensure social survival.

In a very real sense, I am moral because I am neurologically typical. There are people whose brains function in abnormal ways who feel no compunction to be moral, whether they believe in a judging deity or not. If I were near death, I would still behave morally largely because of my properly functioning brain and my social upbringing. There is no transcendent reason why. I’m not expecting the universe to change its mind and give me an afterlife; I’m just expecting to leave a real effect on the people who survive me.

Posted: October 25th 2010

See all questions answered by Mike the Infidel


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