Godless Morality

Is religion necessary for morality? Many people consider it outrageous, even blasphemous, to deny the divine origin of morality. Either some divine being crafted our moral sense, or we picked it up from the teachings of organized religion. Either way, we need religion to curb nature’s vices. Paraphrasing Katherine Hepburn in the movie The African Queen, religion allows us to rise above wicked old Mother Nature, handing us a moral compass.

Yet problems abound for the view that morality comes from God. One problem is that we cannot, without lapsing into tautology, simultaneously say that God is good, and that he gave us our sense of good and bad. For then we are simply saying that God meets God’s standards.

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A second problem is that there are no moral principles that are shared by all religious people, regardless of their specific beliefs, but by no agnostics and atheists. Indeed, atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts rest on different principles. Non-believers often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, and have worked to abolish slavery and contributed to other efforts to alleviate human suffering.

The opposite is also true. Religion has led people to commit a long litany of horrendous crimes, from God’s command to Moses to slaughter the Midianites – men, women, boys, and non-virginal girls – through the Crusades, the Inquisition, innumerable conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and suicide bombers convinced that martyrdom will lead them to paradise.

The third difficulty for the view that morality is rooted in religion is that some elements of morality seem to be universal, despite sharp doctrinal differences among the world’s major religions. In fact, these elements extend even to cultures like China, where religion is less significant than philosophical outlooks like Confucianism.

Perhaps a divine creator handed us these universal elements at the moment of creation. But an alternative explanation, consistent with the facts of biology and geology, is that over millions of years we have evolved a moral faculty that generates intuitions about right and wrong.

For the first time, research in the cognitive sciences, building on theoretical arguments emerging from moral philosophy, has made it possible to resolve the ancient dispute about the origin and nature of morality.

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank space with “obligatory,” “permissible,” or “forbidden.”

1. A runaway boxcar is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the boxcar onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical condition, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital, but there is a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die, but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1,500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test (http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu/). If morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from religious people, and their responses should rely on different justifications.

For example, because atheists supposedly lack a moral compass, they should be guided by pure self-interest and walk by the drowning child. But there were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs.

When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that cannot account for the relevant differences. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

These studies provide empirical support for the idea that, like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance.

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Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good today. But insights into the changing moral landscape, in which issues like animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, and international aid have come to the fore, have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived.

In this respect, it is important for us to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect on them and, if we choose, act contrary to them. We can do this without blasphemy, because it is our own nature, not God, that is the source of our morality.