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Chapter Six: A Moral Code

Section 3: Morals and ethics

Be nice to people is our basic moral code.

Section 1 confirmed that morality is concerned with human welfare. Section 2 showed that God's morality is egoistic, inconsistent and hypocritical.

Because it is arbitrary and discriminatory, religious morality is more likely to harm society rather than benefit it.

Furthermore, to base our morality on scripture is to abdicate responsibility for our own reason and actions. For many believers, the idea that "God tells us what (not) to do" is a convenient excuse for avoiding any serious discussion of morality - a discussion that inevitably leads away from the deity.

6a We made God moral

Although believers say that morality comes from God, the opposite is true. As humanity evolved, our initial ignorance of the world around us led us to suppose we were created and watched by supernatural beings. Consciously or subconsciously, we attributed our developing sense of morality to these mythical gods.

These gods - the many deities of Greece, Scandinavia, India or elsewhere - did not always behave morally. Nor did the monotheistic God of the Bible and Quran. But in order to be moral ourselves, we needed to believe that there was an authority greater than ourselves who told us what we should and should not do - and that authority was God. In other words, humans made God moral, not the other way round.

6.3b Morality and ethics

To apply morality to our daily lives we need to introduce the idea of ethics.

Morality and ethics are both concerned with good / right and bad / wrong. They are often confused and in many ways they are similar, but there are two major differences.

Firstly, morality looks at the bigger picture. It lays down a basic definition of right and wrong which may be considered timeless. current knowledge. Ethics interprets that definition in the light of today's knowledge.

Here is an example. The long-term view - morality - says that it is wrong to harm people. Ethics and applies this view to contemporary interpretations. Two thousand years ago ancient Romans agreed that it was unethical to harm slaves but slavery itself was ethical because it was not in itself harmful. Today we accept that an individual's psychological wellbeing is as important as their physical welfare - and that makes all forms of slavery unethical.

There are many areas in which ethics have changed over the years as our understanding of human needs and welfare has developed. We now accept that discrimination against women is unacceptable; homosexuality is also increasingly seen as a facet of human nature which should not be penalised.

Morality (do not harm people) remains constant, but ethics (what constitutes harm?) progress.

Secondly, while morals apply to everyone, ethics can be applied to specific individuals and situations. Many professions and organisations have ethical codes which apply basic moral standards to their professions and many people develop their own ethical code - such as not buying products that have been made by people working in near-slave conditions. Ethical codes enable individuals and groups to apply morals - do no harm - to specific circumstances.

6.3c Me first?

Morality tells us that actions which sustain or promote human physical or mental welfare are good / right / moral. From that simple observation we can deduce our basic moral code: do nothing that harms other people's mental or physical welfare and where possible improve their well-being. In basic English: be nice to people.

That code is universal - it apply to everyone equally - otherwise it is worthless. Why? Because any code that allows us to harm others also allows them to harm us.

So, how do we get from the abstract - do no harm / be nice to people - to the actual, applying that principle to our daily lives? If we spent every waking hour trying to help other people, our own welfare would soon suffer. So whose welfare comes first: our own or other people's?

The answer is simple. Our own welfare is almost always more important. That does not mean that other people are less valuable than we are - they are not - but there are good reasons why each of us should place our own well-being before that of others.

Firstly, perspective. No matter how much we empathise with other people, we can never fully understand their point of view. We do not know what it is like to be them. The only person we can fully experience is ourselves.

Whatever we do for ourselves, we experience the full impact, good or bad. Whatever we do for others, we can only observe the impact. Feeding ourselves gives us strength and physical and mental well-being; feeding others benefits only our minds. Furthermore, our actions are not guaranteed to bring the good results we intend - if, for example, when trying to be helpful we give someone food to which they are allergic.

Secondly, we cannot help others if do not help ourselves first. It makes no sense to feed other people when we ourselves are starving. There are exceptions to that general principle; the old may consider their lives of less importance than the the young, a mother will feed her child first, and so on. But the basic principle remains that we can help others best when we put our own well-being first.

Taking care of ourselves goes far beyond food. We need shelter, clothing, an income, privacy, companionship and so on. Some of us have more demands than others in each of these spheres - and we may overstate our needs (how many of us need three cars or four televisions or two houses?) There comes a point, however, when our needs are met and we can devote attention to others. Ultimately, our goal should be to find the balance between meeting our own needs and creating and / or allowing opportunities for those around us to fulfil their needs. Some of us reach that goal early in life, others very late, and some never at all...

6.3d What's good for us?

We have learnt that our basic moral code is be nice to people. We have also learnt that we cannot help others if our own welfare suffers. Our next question is: how can we decide what is good for us? And is what is good for me or you good for everyone?

It's time to turn to the big issues - life and death, sex and drugs. What will our moral / ethical code tell us?

Chapter Six: Section 4 Sex: What is it good for?

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