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Chapter Six: A Moral Code

Section 1: Defining morality

Morality is concerned with human physical and mental welfare

6.1a What is morality?

Let us start with basic definitions. What do the words "morality", "moral" and "immoral" mean? How are they used?

Morality distinguishes between good and bad. It applies to behaviour - what we do. It also applies to individuals - what kind of people we are.

Moral behaviour promotes good; people are moral if their intentions and behaviour promote good. Immoral behaviour and immoral people cause harm.

(To be amoral is to have no sense of morality. People who are amoral do not know if they are doing good or harm.)

That leads us to the next set of questions. What is "good"? What is "bad"? What are "right" and "wrong"?

We can answer these questions in two ways - from the humanist perspective or from the perspective of religion. This section looks at humanist morality - morality without God. The next section looks at God's morality

6.1b Amoral nature

The stars swirl across the nighttime sky, tides ebb and flow, the sun rises, rain falls, volcanoes erupt, plants grow and are eaten by herbivores, herbivores are eaten by carnivores and the dead bodies of carnivores return to the earth in one form or another to feed the next generation of plants.

None of these events is moral or immoral. They occur. That is all. There is no morality in the vacuum of outer space, in the depths of the oceans or in jungles where human beings have never trod. The universe - nature itself - is amoral.

6.1c Consciousness leads to morality

Morality cannot exist in space or in the ocean because where there is no consciousness, there is no understanding of consequences. The moon is unaware that its gravity causes tides. The sea is unaware that its waves leads to erosion.

Among animals there is little or no understanding of consequences. The lion may be dimly aware that if it does not kill the gazelle it does not eat, but that is not understanding in the human sense of the word. The killing of the gazelle by the lion is good for the lion's welfare and bad for the gazelle's, but in itself it is not a moral or immoral act.

Morality only comes into existence with human consciousness and action.

Humans are unique because

we are conscious of ourselves and other human beings;
we recognise the consequences of our actions on others and others' actions on ourselves;
we can change our actions to minimise or exaggerate those consequences; and
we can communicate with others to change actions and consequences.

In other words: because we are human, we are conscious; because we are conscious, we understand consequences; and because we understand that consequences can help or harm ourselves and others, we have a sense of morality.

6.1d Good and bad, right and wrong, health and happiness

Only human beings can identify actions and their consequences as good or bad for themselves or others. Only human beings understand that actions can promote or harm physical or mental welfare. Only human beings have a sense of morality - and morality only applies to human beings. In short:

an action - or lack of action - that sustains or promotes human physical or mental welfare is good / right / moral.
an action - or lack of action - that harms human physical or mental welfare is bad / wrong / immoral.

The next step is to define physical or mental welfare. We may disagree on the details, but physical welfare means good health and mental welfare means at least contentment and at best happiness. Not everyone can be always healthy and content or happy, but morality helps us to aim for a state where the most possible people are healthiest and happiest for the longest possible time.

If conscious aliens exist on other planets do they share our sense of morality?

If they do have a sense of morality, would they see humans as equal to them or different?
Good question. Alien morality is a fascinating and complex subject; let's make sure we discuss it the next time we meet some aliens.

6.1e We are all equal

We understand what morality is, but we have not yet developed a moral or ethical code - rules to help us live morally. We will begin to do that in Section Three. Before then, however, we must recognise a basic principle - that all human beings are of equal value, irrespective of age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability or other condition.

Why is this important? For the simple reason that if we discriminate against others, we give them the right to discriminate against us. Taking privileges for ourselves may give us an advantage in the short term, but it sets a precedent that will eventually harm us. (For example, if I decide that taking your car promotes my welfare, you could decide that taking my house is good for you. Rules must apply to everyone equally to make sense.)

6.1f The hard part

It has been relatively easy to define humanist - God-less - morality but it is much harder to put it into practice. How do we define harm? How do we know what makes people happy? When is sex moral? What about the death penalty? Lying? Eating fatty foods? Abortion? Pornography? Drugs? Treatment of animals?

There's a whole minefield out there and we have to tread carefully if we want to formulate an effective moral code. For now let us conclude that morality is concerned with human physical and mental welfare - with our happiness. It's a simple statement that does not need God to tell us that it is true.

Chapter Six: Section 2 God's morals

In this video Sam Harris covers much of the same ground
as this section, in greater depth.

Are atheists immoral?

Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith, apparently, keep us moral.

It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.

6.1: Defining morality
What's good for us?

6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired

6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual

6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be

6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control

6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
Tastes vary

6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect

6.8: Abortion
An ethical approach

6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral

6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity

6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?

6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake

6.13: Summary
Chapter 7

How do you live when you realize that religion is false?

Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and depravity?

The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.

Beyond Religion