Sometimes you hold a door open for an elderly person. Other times you let someone at the grocery store with one item cut in front of you in line. If you’re feeling extra-special generous, you might limit your f-bombs around your sister’s kid to a measly three per interaction. Wimp.
It feels good to do nice things. Tests have actually shown that random acts of spontaneous kindness release oxytocin in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for developing trust and relationships with other people. 1Zak, Paul J.; Stanton, Angela A.; Ahmadi, Sheila. (2007, November 7). Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE.So doing nice things is not only good for us, but it also chemically changes the way we feel.
But people have been doing nice things long before scientists found a biological incentive for it. We might say we understand why we do nice things, but what makes something good? What are morals? What is morally good? Morally bad? Scientists might have you believe that morals developed out of necessity for early humans to ensure the survival of the human race.
The Scientific Argument
By our nature, human beings are social creatures that rely on one another for both physical and emotional wellbeing. 2Bhatt, Ajay. (2012). What is the importance of primary group? Preserve Articles. In the early days of human existence, it was essential to work with other humans to ensure the survival of the family or community unit in order to protect one another from danger, gather food, and cultivate resources.
This is somewhat of a stretch from ‘being nice,’ but one can imagine the ramifications of early humans adopting the opposite mentality. The idea of ‘every man for himself’ could not even have been conceived of if one wanted to live any sort of prosperous life. (Let alone procreate.)
Eventually, humans began to learn a thing or two. Sticks and rocks were combined to make sticks with rocks on them. Animal hides were crafted into clothes. Somewhere in there someone invented the wheel. Societies began to develop. Government structures began to be created.
‘Kindness,’ which was once a necessity for survival, had quickly become an archaic frivolity. No longer did anyone need to be ‘nice,’ it was just nice to be ‘nice.’ ‘Every man for himself’ had now become a much more accessible mantra for living.
I am not arguing that the dawn of civilization enticed everyone to adopt selfishness. That is not true. It simply allowed people to adopt selfishness, as their own personal wellbeing was less dependent on the wellbeing of others.
Once people were able to stop worrying about which giant animal was going to try and kill them today, they began to have time to speculate the big mysteries of the universe. Where did we come from? What happens when we die? Who shot JFK?
Without the scientific process that is often applied to modern philosophical or scientific questions, early humans were only left with their minds. And they came up with some crazy ass shit.
Ancient Greeks believed in a sun god named Helios who pulled the sun across the sky every day. 3Smith, William. (2016, May). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Perseus Digital Library.Ancient Egyptians believed in a god named Osiris who protected the living from the dangers of the Underworld. 4Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 105.The Mesopotamians believed in a god of vermin named Ninkilim, whose name literally translates into “Lord Vermin.” 5Veldhuis, Niek. (2002). Studies in Sumerian Vocabulary. The American Schools of Oriental Research.I’m not really sure what he was used for, but there you go.
The idea of gods was a very appealing sentiment to both people of the past, and even people today. It seems comforting to know that there are powers above you seeking to ensure your well-being, facilitate your life after your death, and take care of all of your vermin problems.
As the requirements of the use of morals for survival began to dissipate from ancient civilizations, people began to affix codes of morals and ethics to their respective religious deities.
Obviously, these ancient systems of religious worship were not very effective, because none of them have survived the test of time, but they did allow societies that were born out of their ashes to learn from their mistakes.
One of the best and most famous examples of this results from the writings of Moses in the Old Testament in the Bible and the creation of the Ten Commandments.
I am not here to argue Moses’s existence, intentions, or credibility (best leave that for another day). But I am here to comment on the marriage of morals and theology.
Followers of Moses at the time the Commandments were adopted were now bound by religious law to act in morally conscious ways.
This was huge. Members of society no longer had a choice in the matter of ethical dilemmas they may or may not have lived with in the past. If they believed in and worshiped the god at the apex of their religion, then they were now bound by religious law to make morally conscious decisions.
Which brings us to:
The Religious Argument
Regardless of contemporary individuals’ opinions on religions and their validity, a lot of people have subscribed to Moses’s prophecies from God over the past few millennia. His writings have served as the keystone for the foundations of the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Creationist theists would exclaim “Hogwash!” at the scientific explanation for the adoption of morals to societies.
They would claim that God created the Earth in seven days, and that Adam was the first man and Eve was the first woman. They would claim that God’s word was passed to man through Moses, and that right and wrong was dictated by God. People are to do what is right because it is commanded by God, and to do otherwise is to sin. An oversimplification reads: doing good things gets you into heaven, and doing bad things gets you sent to hell. 6I am aware that the act of getting into heaven is far more nuanced (and disagreed upon) than this, thus the use of the word “over-simplified.”
There is an obvious dilemma here between scientific findings and religious teachings. Scientists will use empirical data to refute their argument. Religious folk will use their faith to refute theirs. Therefore, both of these methods of thinking will render the other moot when either is used as evidence against the other.
This little conundrum is best addressed through the lens of the Euthyphro Dilemma, which appears in Plato’s Euthyphro between Socrates and the dialogue’s eponymous character, Euthyphro. Socrates poses a question to Euthyphro stating: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
In today’s terms, the questions can be rewritten to read: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”
Even more simply, “Which came first,
the chicken God or the egg morals?”
“Is The Pious Loved by The Gods Because It Is Pious?”
Let’s look at the first half of the question first. Are morals commanded by God because they are moral?
For the sake of argument, we have to assume God is real. And let’s say morals are commanded by God because they are moral.
This means that a universal, inter-dimensional code of right and wrong permeates every aspect of human life, death, existence, and level of consciousness we are not even intelligent enough to comprehend.
People may or may not be aware of this moral code, so it is then the duty of God to dictate what is good and what is bad.
An example of this would be like God telling you not to kill your neighbor (whose dog keeps shitting in your yard, mind you) because it’s the right thing to do. But this presents a problem.
If God, who is the supreme being, creator of the heavens and the Earth, is telling you not to kill someone because “it is the right thing to do,” then it would seem as if he were being controlled by some greater power or ideology. How powerful is this supreme being that is himself bound by a set of moral codes greater than he?
Additionally, if these moral codes are truly superior to God, then he wouldn’t even have the power to declare what is right and wrong for himself, because he, too, would be bound by this moral force, only able to act on its behalf. That seems contradictory for an all powerful being.
Today, we can recognize that there may or may not be a God above. But regardless, we have adopted a sense of right and wrong. We also appear to have free will, so we are able to choose whether we do right or wrong. So if God is truly bound by morals to command us to act morally, then what does that make us if we have free will and he does not? A more alarming question is what does that make of God?
He seems like more of a middle-man in this situation, and an ineffective one to boot. Based on all of the information above, it can be safe to assume God cannot be a supreme, sovereign being if he is truly bound by morals, for these morals would be the real ‘god’ or ‘gods’ to revere.
In that instance, it would seem more plausible that God is simply an Officer of Morals and that these Morals are the ones pulling the strings. God is then just another rung on the ladder of life. Another link in the food chain.
But let me be clear: I am not positing that we would be above God because of our perceived free will and his perceived forced hand. The key word here is perceived. In this situation, God still exists on some higher level of consciousness that we have yet to be able to articulate or understand.
The bottom line is that if we have the free will to disobey God, but God himself is bound by a moral code, then our lives, regardless of the penalties of acting in sin or not, exist outside of the framework of any religious construct currently in existence.
Therefore, I find it incredibly foolish to believe that God would command us to act in moral ways because that is the moral thing to do. This line of thinking is illogical and unnecessarily complex.
In this scenario, God is at best an unnecessary, non-omnipotent being who has no more power over his creation than Robin Williams had over Flubber.
“Is It Pious Because It Is Loved By The Gods?”
Now let’s take a look at the other question: is something moral because it is commanded by God?
This would be the argument made by most religious folk who believe that God created the heavens and the Earth, because if he created those two things, then he could certainly have created morals, right? Cue the Ten Commandments.
But now that we have accepted that God is the supreme being, and that morals are of his creation, a problem arises, in that morals are his creation. At this point, they are a creation and nothing more. Morals become arbitrary when we accept that there is no higher power than God.
In God’s supremacy, he could have created any set of rules and called them morals. He could have told us all to be clowns. That may sound silly, but if it was what he commanded to be ‘good’, out of fear of being ‘immoral,’ I imagine we all would have started making balloon animals pretty quickly, and that would have been considered morally decent.
Under this doctrine, which seems to be the doctrine that a good portion of the Judeo-Christian society subsists under today, our actions are deemed morally good or bad based on the initial whims of God when he created morality.
But at this point, what is the purpose of God? We might currently revere him as a wise and rational being, but how ‘good’ can God be if he created ‘good?’ That’s like when the president of Turkmenistan gave himself an award made of gold and diamonds because of his own outstanding achievements. 7The Associated Press. (2007, June 30). Turkmen Leader Gives Himself Huge Award. The Washington Post.
And what does that make us? Just a bunch of characters in a game of Sims? As God sits at the keyboard of life, he defines the world. He makes the rules. As characters in this game of his, we have no choice but to act upon his every command. The idea of good and the idea of bad can change at the drop of a dime, simply because God says so.
Much in the same way a slave can never fully trust his or her master, we can never fully trust God, let alone love him. As long as God holds even some semblance of power over the race of humans he supposedly created, we can only exist to act in ways that we think please him, as he commands.
The relationship is not a back and forth. It’s not a two-way street. We are the puppets and he is the puppeteer. We are the characters, and he is the novelist. We are human, and he is God.
So is this half of our brain-busting question any more plausible than the first? If the two questions had to be compared, I would say that the scenario in which God commands what is moral and what is not is more plausible than the former statement only because after we apply Occam’s razor, the latter statement requires fewer stipulations for it to be true. But at the end of the day, it’s still only a plausible scenario that is arrived at in the admittance of our agnosticism.
Where does that leave us then?
The simple answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma seems to most succinctly be that gods do not exist, or that if they do, their existence has nothing to do with our conception of morality.
There is no logical way that a divine creator can dictate what is morally good and bad and simultaneously live up to all of the other titles we assign it.
We must accept that morals either a) truly do not exist in any universally objective form, or that b) we are simply not capable of comprehending the means by which universal morality actually plays a role in our seemingly insignificant lives.
The latter circumstance is an unreconcilable metaphysical matter, so it seems to make much more sense to simply reject objective morality.
By taking God out of the morality equation, we should be able to define for ourselves what we believe as a species to be right and wrong. Just like economies, democracies, and even parentheses, morals are defined and created by us. Humans.
Yes, there is a biological factor, but once we accept that morality is something we have control over, something we have created by means of governing our day to day interactions to ensure the betterment of humankind as a whole, we should be able to move forward with these accepted truths and attempt to live our own autonomously prosperous lives.
But wait, what is morally good, you ask?
I have no fucking clue. I think we’ve covered enough ground for one day. Go take a walk or bang on some drums or something. One brain-melting question at a time, please. Kthanksbye.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Zak, Paul J.; Stanton, Angela A.; Ahmadi, Sheila. (2007, November 7). Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE.|
|2.||↑||Bhatt, Ajay. (2012). What is the importance of primary group? Preserve Articles.|
|3.||↑||Smith, William. (2016, May). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Perseus Digital Library.|
|4.||↑||Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 105.|
|5.||↑||Veldhuis, Niek. (2002). Studies in Sumerian Vocabulary. The American Schools of Oriental Research.|
|6.||↑||I am aware that the act of getting into heaven is far more nuanced (and disagreed upon) than this, thus the use of the word “over-simplified.”|
|7.||↑||The Associated Press. (2007, June 30). Turkmen Leader Gives Himself Huge Award. The Washington Post.|