Saturday, October 03, 2009

Moral Values Without Religion

By Peter Schwartz (Ayn Rand Institute)

Does morality depend upon religion? Most people believe it does, which is a major reason behind the appeal of the religious right. People believe that without faith in a supernatural authority, we can have no moral values--no moral absolutes, no black-and-white distinctions, no firm demarcation between good and evil--in life or in politics. This is the assumption underlying Justice Antonin Scalia's
[US Supreme Court justice -Ed.] assertion that "government derives its authority from God," since only religious faith can supposedly provide moral constraints on human action.

And what draws people to this bizarre premise--the premise that there is no rational basis for refraining from murder, rape or anarchism? The left's persistent assault on moral values.

That is, liberals characteristically renounce moral absolutes in favor of moral grayness. They insist, for example, that criminals should not be reviled, but should be seen as tragic products of their "social environment"--that teenage mothers are just as entitled to welfare checks as wage-earners are to their paychecks, and that to deny welfare benefits for a child born into a family already receiving welfare is, as the ACLU declares, to "unconstitutionally coerce women's reproductive decisions"--that America is morally equivalent to its enemies, with our own policies having provoked the Sept. 11 attacks and our "unilateralist" actions in Iraq being no different from any forcible occupation of one nation by another.

Repulsed by such egalitarian, anti-"judgmental" absurdities, many people disavow what they regard as leftism's essence: secularism, and turn to religion for their values.

But this is a false alternative. Secularism is simply a viewpoint that disclaims religion; what it embraces, though, may be rational or not. And the absurdities of the left stem precisely from its irrationality--its pervasive emotionalism, its insistence on doing whatever "feels right," its contention that there are no fixed truths, its credo that morality is anything one wishes it to be. The left maintains that no objective principles exist to validate moral judgments. From its multicultural equalization of all societies--savage or civilized--to its belief in an indefinable, "evolving" Constitution, the left rejects the logic of objective standards and enshrines the arbitrariness of subjectivism. Thus, what the left's opponents should disavow is not secularism per se, but rather the replacement of a religious variant of unreason--blind faith--with a secular variant: blind feelings.

The real alternative to the leftist claptrap is a morality of reason. Such a morality begins with the individual's life as the primary value and identifies the further values that are demonstrably required to sustain that life. It observes that man's nature demands that we live not by random urges or by animal instincts, but by the faculty that distinguishes us from animals and on which our existence fundamentally depends: rationality.

With reason as its cardinal value, this code of individualism espouses fixed principles and categorical moral judgments. It demands, for instance, that the initiation of force--the antithesis of reason--be denounced and that an unbridgeable moral chasm be recognized between the criminal and the non-criminal.

Since life requires man to produce what he needs, productiveness is a moral value--thereby making moral opposites out of the industrious worker and the parasitic welfare recipient. Since life requires man to use his own judgment rather than submissively accept the assertions of others, independence is a moral value--making moral opposites out of the person (or nation) acting on his own rational convictions and the one deferring to the consensus of his neighbors (or the U.N.). Since life requires the mind, man's political system must allow him to use it, i.e., freedom is a moral value--making moral opposites out of America, the defender of liberty, and America's enemies, who seek liberty's destruction.

A morality of reason counters the relativism and the undiscriminating "tolerance" of the left.

It also counters a morality of faith, and establishes a genuine "culture of life." Individualism upholds your sovereignty over your life--and refuses to subordinate the preservation of that life to, say, the preservation of embryonic stem cells in some petri dish. Individualism defends your inalienable right to your life, including your right to end it--and evaluates, say, opposition to assisted-suicide as a desecration of human life, since forcing someone to live who wishes to die is no less evil than forcing someone to die who wishes to live.

There is indeed morality without religion--a morality, not of dogmatic commands, but of rational values and of unbreached respect for the life of the individual.

15 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I think I have to agree with hos closing conclusion.

I grew up in a christian household, but I absolutely hated church, I guess because the way the Dutch Reformed church went about it. Going to church was like going to a funeral, and you were constantly told you are such a sinner who needs to repent.

Now that didn't sit well with me, and after I left school I avoided going to church, and to be truthful I would NEVER go again unless it's for a wedding or a funeral which I cannot pass on.

Saying that, I still believe in my heart I may be a christian, and morally bind myself to the 10 commandments. High moral standards are entrenched in me, whether due to my upbringing or not, it's just what I am.

But then again I cannot console that God could curse us so with black savages in Africa to the point of driving us out and delivering us to very evil he are supposed to absolve us from? How can this forgiving God be so cruel, how can he expect a simple soul like me then to believe in him? Truthfully, how can anyone expect me to pray to such a god who I feel have deserted the very people who believe in him?

So anyway, is morality due to religious upbringing? I don't know, maybe or maybe not, what do you think?

Viking said...

Hi anon.
morality is completely independent of religion, in my opinion. Religion maybe is more concerned with ethics, but that too is a secular affair nowadays.
Goodness is not only good for it's own sake, but to paraphrase Emmanual (sp.?) Kant, society works best when everyone is good, or at least tries to uphold the good.
The left rejects morality as a construct of the 'patriarchy' or the establishment or whoever is to blame this week, and makes tolerance the ultimate good. "Tolerance" is in reality the ultimate oppression, as it forces closed open minds and mouths, and prevents any debate. Ideas, rather than being presented at the philosophical marketplace for comparison and judgement, are considered a priori "equal" in merit to all others, removing all choice and freedom.

human about said...

good post. the thing is, good morality, behaviour and attitude will make this world a better place to live in. i add u in my link list, would u add me in your link list too. thanx

Doberman said...

@ Human About, will do.

Vanilla Ice said...

Morality is absolutely independent of religion. It is a myth that without religion we will not be able to distinguish right from wrong.

In a study by Hauser and Singer, thought experiments were conducted between atheists and religious folk. Three scenarios were put to the subjects.

1. There is a runaway railway trolley speeding towards 5 people. Denise, is positioned at the switch point, and is able to divert the trolley; but the diversion will result in the death of 1 man. What do you do?

2. You see a child drowning in a pond. There is no other help in sight. You can save the child, but your trousers will be ruined. What do you do?

3. 5 patients are dying, each requiring a different organ transplant. None can be found. The surgeon notices a healthy man in the waiting room, who has 5 compatible organs. What does the surgeon do?

As can be expected, there is no statistically significant difference in the answers provided by atheists or religious people. So our sense of morality has nothing to do with religion.

Anonymous said...

“Does morality depend upon religion?”
I think the question should read: “Does morality depend upon the belief of a creator”, since not all religions assume the existence of a supreme creator (ie Buddha himself said that there is no god).
Acknowledging the existence of a supreme creator is accompanied by accountability laid out by the bible, torah or quran, each of which outlines their sense of right from wrong, thus installing a sense of morality and ethics amongst the believers.
But instead of delving in specific religions, let me outline the reason why most people believe what they believe. I think there are two kinds of people.
A)Those who believe in their form of a creator, and adopt a lifestyle that is consistent with the teachings of the relevant ‘holy book’.
B)Those who adopt a belief system that justifies their lifestyles.
That is why it is of no surprise that some people have standards that are absolute, and others that are relative.

And anony 11:33, I know exactly what you're saying. Remember that following the traditions of a self-appointed representative of God has more than often nothing to do with faith. And ask yourself, has God forsaken your people, or have your people forsaken God?

Viking said...


Interestingly, in questions such as those you quote, there tends to be a gender bias rather than a religious one - women tend to look for other solutions to those problems whereas men tend to think in terms of right or wrong more quickly.

In question 3., we would want to know how the man can be pursuaded to give his life for the other five before we could make a "moral" decision. whose choice is it?

All people, of whatever stripe, tend to think that killing one man to save a thousand is perfectly acceptable - would we so easily kill four to save five?

Anonymous said...

@ Viking, interesting points, although my common sense immediately told me to warn the five (to get out of the way - does that make me a woman?) than to kill the one to save the five!

On the point of most societies choosing to kill one to save a thousand (although no society I would choose to live in would do uch thing); would that not ratify the Bantu murder of all Boers so that future generations of Bantu could "survive" by having our land on which to raise their cattle?
Have you maybe highighted the biggest problem facing minority societies trying to survive in a new society where the majority (oiginally from a different society) are of a "different stripe" but would happily give up the minority lives to enhance the lives of their kith and kin?

Vanilla Ice said...

@Anon 4:53. I think you miss the point. The posed questions were to compare levels of morality. Only you know how this has become an issue surrounding minorities. Should the boers live or die? That is absurd and immoral.

Anonymous said...

@ Vanilla:
My questions weren't rhetorical and I wasn't trying to make a point!
I was merely asking Viking if, in his opinion, he could see a link between the fact that some are expendable in the interests of many (in any society) ie. that it involved "choice" of who is expendable; and the fact that minorities are usually identified as being expendable by majorities
(except in the case of modern "western" nation-states where minorities are given preferential treatment).

I'm interested in whether or not Viking sees my theory as mirroring his, but on a makro scale. Any other opinions also welcome.

To simplify it by comparing it to the third question example used by Hauser and Singer: in a "black" society where five black patients are dying of organ failure and the surgeon noticed two healthy men sitting in the waiting room (one black and one white) would he be more likely to sacrifice the "white" man for the sake of the 5 black patients?

In any case, my exprience leads me to believe that minority groups (except in those western nation states) are side-lined while the majority groups get the best land etc. This is the crux of my argument for nationalist socialism (many small states made up of independent Nations who look out for themselves) and against any makro-state with its communist, capitalist or social-democratic ideologies where culture and religion mean little or nothing!

Viking said...


You make a good point - there are no doubt blacks in SA who think that "sacrificing" a few Boers to save their own kin is acceptable. BUT, you need to consider the point that the evidence (from Zim for starters) suggests that the opposite would occur - kill the white man, and thousands of blacks will starve to death.

The morality though-experiment requires a certainty that the lives would be saved/lost.

Viking said...


After further reflection on the points you raise, Robert Mugabe springs to mind. Would you take him out to save the lives of the millions who will die because of his policies? I say, hand me a sniper rifle!

I do think the issue of scapegoating minorities is a serious one, and it happens all the time - but as VI says, it doesn't have a bearing on the morality questions he cited. Not least because scapegoating isn't based on facts - usually based on wild speculation or resentment.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

"I do think the issue of scapegoating minorities is a serious one, and it happens all the time - but as VI says, it doesn't have a bearing on the morality questions he cited. Not least because scapegoating isn't based on facts - usually based on wild speculation or resentment.

What do you think?"

Thanks, I'm no philosopher (did one year of it as a filler in one of my degrees) so it would take much more time for me to research any links between "scapegoating" and "moral choices between who lives and who dies"...
so for now I'm happy with your explaination that there isn't a link!
Perhaps the link is more between placing some at greater risk eg. women and children first, than it is choosing who lives and who dies! ie. we will risk oher groups more than our own OR expendabilaty (is that a word) as opposed to sacrifice. Minority groups expendable... a different debate I guess!

It's just that you got me thinking!

Cath Princeton said...

Does morality depend upon religion - I think yes. It is one of the attributes that define religions

Greg Princeton said...

Nice post! Would like to see more of these. Thanks.