Recently, author Sam Harris has proposed that not only is morality possible without the need for God—or any deity, but that science can be used to provide the basis of such a secular morality.
While I agree with his contention, I feel that I should offer my own take on this subject.
First, let’s define morality and then establish some categories and some differences (and a few other things).
I am going to define morality as simply a code of behavior. The behavior that would encompass a code of any sort can of course take different forms. There is behavior toward oneself, there is behavior toward other humans, and there is behavior toward non-humans. The category of non-humans would necessarily include non-human inhabitants of this universe as well as the non-human inhabitants of any other universe (i.e. Heaven?). For the sake of argument, and to see if we can come to a consensus as to what would constitute an absolute morality, I will lump “self” and “other humans” into one general category, and place “all non-humans” into a single separate category. True, some might be offended by seeing their god or gods sharing a category with cattle, apes, lions, spiders, and golden carp, but if you’re patient you will see where I’m going with this.
Absolute versus relative. I am going to say that any code of behavior that is aimed at non-humans is a relative code of behavior, a relative morality. Why? Well, because by definition non-humans are not human and OUR morality is necessarily by, about, and for humans! Since there are millions of species of non-human creatures on this planet, many of which many of us also enjoy eating, I cannot consider any concept of intuitive morality that would govern our behavior toward non-humanity here! Certainly, humanity COULD agree that eating other living creatures is wrong and should be abolished, but that agreement would be part of a deterministic process and since many animals are digestible by humans, the decision to stop eating them would not be intuitive or based on tenets of science; it would be an arbitrary decision! If a code of behavior is not intuitively good or based in science, then it ought not be a candidate for our absolute morality.
God or gods. Now, I understand that every one of you who is a practicing and believing member of a religion would be ecstatic to have your own god be the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong.
Among yourselves, this belief may have spawned an absolute morality FOR YOU and for the other members of YOUR religion, but while the rest of us are grateful for your volunteering your god, we must respectfully decline. You see, there is nothing intuitive or universal or even scientific about dietary restrictions (without medical motivation), sexual restrictions, keeping certain days “holy”, or bending to one’s knees to worship specific deities. Even if any of these “laws” have been handed to a human or human group by an actual deity, they are entirely relative to that deity. They are not intuitive (or based on any scientific principles) and they may not even be commandments given by actual gods.
No matter how you cut it, all religions are based on revelation. A person or persons CLAIMS that a being from another dimension has appeared to them (and usually to ONLY them) and has given them a set of instructions to relay to the rest of us. This requires two major leaps of incredulity. First, the rest of us must accept that the human claimants are not conning, lying, or simply insane. Then we must accept that the being or beings with which they have communicated are also not conning, lying, or simply insane. And we must accept these assumptions without a shred of physical evidence.
This is not to say that some or all of these alleged instructions from the deity are bad instructions. Most of us would certainly agree that lying, stealing, and murdering, are USUALLY bad things. But other instructions are meant specifically as instructions for the worship of the deity. Neither intuitive nor valid for those who do not believe in that particular deity. Let’s keep in mind that there are many deities that have been introduced to humanity, many of whom are still around in one form or another. Without any good evidence, why should any one deity have precedence over another?
What would be the intuitive good or the scientific basis for circumcision, eating only fish on Fridays, not eating pork, forbidding homosexuality, wearing only certain colors, or wearing clothes made only from certain materials, or not working on a specific day? Everything that I have just mentioned is either a non-issue or a critical issue to somebody and by extension, to somebody’s god.
So, for the sake of this discussion, I will limit the candidates for an absolute morality to those that affect the category of “oneself and other humans” only.
As far as I can see, there is one basic commandment that qualifies for consideration:
Do no harm to other humans.
This idea has been utilized to one degree or another by early humans as well as by our cousins the apes. Naturally, apes have narrowed the field down to “do no harm to other members of your tribe”. And most of our early ancestors did the same, maintaining a very narrow definition of “fellow tribesman”! Since tribalism predates civilization—ok, helped lead to civilization–and since primates have been gathering into tribes for protection for millions of years, we are simply adding more folks to the tribe! This then is an evolutionary concept, one that has come down to us with modification from our distant ancestors!
“Do no harm to other humans” is intuitive. There is no overall benefit to the tribe for members of that tribe to cause harm to other members. Therefore there is no inherent benefit for humans to harm other humans. There can in fact be adverse effects to the member doing the harm as those to whom he or she has done harm will be more reluctant to offer assistance should the first member find himself or herself in trouble. Nothing like the appearance of a hungry leopard or a rival tribe to bring everyone together!
“Do no harm to other humans” is scientific. Cooperation and altruistic behavior is one of the primary reasons that humans as a species have survived without the natural means of defense (sharp teeth, powerful limbs, claws, speed). Our capability to make tools or weapons is meaningless without the numbers that a tribe offers. One man with a stone club or spear can bring down small game thus providing for himself, but a group with weapons can bring down animals large enough to provide sustenance for an entire village of people—nourishment for women and the young. Therefore, “do no harm to other humans” is, I think, an excellent start for a secular human-based morality.
In 1776, our Founding Fathers signed a Declaration of Independence from England. One of the primary tenets of this declaration was that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yes, I understand that the Founders added the words “their Creator”. And yes, many of them were referring to the Abrahamic God. But if we look at this Declaration objectively, “creator” can be whatever force made the universe. Does not have to be a supernatural being. The creator can be natural physical laws; it can be the force of Natural Selection, both of which can easily be seen as the origin of man’s inalienable rights!
In actuality, regardless of where these rights came from, they had to be won, by combat and with blood. And yet, there is an excellent intuitiveness to these rights, and even more important, an excellent symmetry to their order. If we look at “life”, “liberty”, and the “pursuit of happiness”, we can see not only three basic rights, but also an order of priority. After all, when we are dealing with large numbers of humans, there will necessarily be conflicts and disputes. By establishing this order of priorities, we can then say that under the general absolute: “do not harm to other humans”, we can establish three sub-headings: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and then further say that one’s life is a higher priority than another’s liberty, and one’s liberty is a higher priority than another’s pursuit of happiness. Now, we have a good start at a guideline for the inevitable dispute resolution that will come up between people and even between nations. In other words, we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so long as we do not infringe on the rights of others.
I cannot deprive you of your life or liberty in order to achieve my own happiness, and of course you cannot deprive me of my life in order to achieve your liberty.
Naturally, these ideas can be debated and should be, but even without the ideas contained within the Declaration of Independence, we have a good start at a secular, human-based morality, and we have done so without requiring a divine being to command us!