[Public Service Warning: As I’ve been having trouble finishing blog posts to a publishable standard recently (or as publishable as I can make them) I’m just going to publish (between publication notifications) unpublishable versions which could well veer between pretentious train of thought and meaningless garbage]
How much of my sense of what’s right comes from being raised in a Christian(ish) society, and what I’ve been indoctrinated to believe is right?
While most morality systems have evolved from, and alongside, religion, if we take religions as artificial constructs what basis do we have for a moral system without a figure of absolute moral authority?
If the religion meme came from somewhere then the morality meme probably came form a similar source. Religion can be seen as a way of explaining the inexplicable so people’s ignorance didn’t turn to fear. It helped them deal with the world around them. Morality basically boils down to guidelines on how to deal with people around you.
Even reducing things to the most pragmatic self-interest of ‘what’s best for me’, society is generally better in the long term than solitude, so dealing with others in a way that benefits all, benefits all. While individuals will inevitably have differing ideals and goals, a generally peaceable society is a reasonable desire to attribute to most.
We can reasonably use ‘treat others as you’d be treated’ as a general guideline in this case. If we view the social group as an extension of the individual then following this is primarily a matter of self-interest.
Looking at the Ten Commandments (other fictionally-derived moral guidelines are available), once we get past the meme-propagation stuff (as an atheist there’s no danger of me worshipping other idols) the remaining elements of respecting your parents, not committing murder, not stealing, not lying, and not coveting your neighbour’s anything (so basically don’t even think about stealing) all seem to be about fitting in with society.
They’re basically the standard social conventions, to enable us to interact, since while there’s a reasonable argument for us being generally social animals, we can all get irritated with one another at some point. Of course small lies are the lubrication of social interaction, and murder in self-defence or defence of others can be regarded as necessary (taking this as a prohibition on ‘killing’ rather than ‘murder’ could complicate matters, but that’s a different subject), but on the whole we can see how these would apply.
While the idea of property can seem odd given consideration, and in practice there tends to be a disparity of property ownership in the world, it can be viewed as a central idea for society to flourish. Without a society everyone would have to see to their own needs, fundamentally their need for food, clean water, and shelter. This would leave little time for other things. Working together procuring these things takes less time than procuring the same amounts individually, and if someone specialises then the time can be cut even further. This allows others to specialise in other things, and they then trade their produce, gaining more than they could working alone. As this continues new avenues open up, and society evolves – rather than remaining stagnant by simply seeing to the necessities – because people trade the results of their labour. Taking this produce without providing anything in return could leave them unable to support themselves, and thereby threaten the framework of society and civilizational evolution. (The topic of land as property is especially murky when you consider how many of us live on land that was taken by conquest, but that’s another topic to return to).
So morality can be seen as a framework for how to cooperate, and from a pragmatic standpoint it’s a reasonable basis of rules for how to act.