Morality and it's origins?

I once read a book by the well known christian author C.S. Lewis called 'Mere christianity'. The book centres largely around the concept of a supposed innate sense of morality governed by our conscience. Lewis argues that everybody knows the difference between right and wrong and our conscience is the proverbial 'angel' sitting on our shoulder that lets us know when we are being immoral. On the surface this concept seems quite simple and rather true when applied to a typical western, developed country. However, when you attempt to apply it to countries of various cultures it falls apart rather rapidly. For example, an extreme case can be found in Papua New Guinea where cannibalism is still probably practised to some degree, or at least was until very recent times. The people who practised cannibalism undoubtedly viewed human flesh as a substantial source of protein and probably felt little remorse (conscience wise) in the same sense that westerners feel when they eat cow, pig, chicken or sheep. Obviously being a christian author, Lewis believes that your governing conscience is a 'gift' from god. The PNG cannibals definitely didn't have the same monotheistic abrahamic god as Lewis does, but certainly had a polytheistic naturalistic gods that centred around the sun, moon and stars -- since for them these are their life givers.

Where I am going with this relates to a commonly held belief among religious people regarding morality. Many argue that without a god guiding us there is no basis for human morality. This is absurd. A relatively simple counter to that argument is that morality is guided rather by a desire to do good for the better of the humanity as a whole. This of course is not necessarily always a true reflection of what the world is like, but people are likely to be morally "good" to those that they like, and even more so to those they are related to. Moreover, religion can even be argued to be immoral if one were to read certain passages in the bible. The common notion of an all loving god is a wonderful thought, and is perpetuated in many modern churches. However, in addition to the love preached by Jesus is the new testament, the bible is full of horrific acts and rules. Below is a list of some of them. I have summarised them with a link to them too.

Numbers 31: 17 - Murder of men and woman as well as keeping virgins for yourself
Hosea 13: 16 - Murder of children and pregnant women
Leviticus 20:10 - Kill adulterers
Isaiah 13: 15 - Murder, including children "dashed to pieces", and "ravishing" wives. This is a strange one since Leviticus 20:10 says that adulterers should be put to death, but here god is saying that wives will be ravished.
Luke 19: 27 - More slaying, but this time from the mouth of Jesus.
Leviticus 20: 13 - Murder of homosexual men
1st Corinthians 14: 34  - Oppression of women
Exodus 31: 15 - People who work on the sabbath should be killed. Bear in mind this comes from the same book as the 10 commandments, one of which is about not killing.
Titus 2: 9 - How slaves should behave. Slavery come up quite a bit in the bible with not condemnation of it that I am aware of, although I am no biblical scholar so I can't be sure.

So my question is, how can the above selection be part of something that is supposed to be a moral guide? I acknowledge that the bible does have parts about love etc., but which parts are supposed to be followed, and which not?  Murder is morally wrong, but what about adulterers or homosexuals?


Sam Harris has a new book out called 'The moral landscape: how can science determine human values?'. The title is pretty self explanatory. I have as yet not read it but will get a copy of it asap and do my best to decipher it and maybe even review it here.

3 comments:

Paul said...

Morals are obviously plastic and socially constructed. They vary endless across time and culture. No objective morality exists. Yet, strong social norms do exist - many of which are shared by lots of cultures at any given time. Despite their differences, all moral codes share in common a basic goal of providing social order.

The implication of this is massive for religion. If God is the supposed source of moral guidance then we have created God, not vice versa!

Jarrod said...

I just watched a little bit of the Harris -- Lane Craig debate. It is not short so will do it in small pieces. Harris makes the argument that I make above; morality serves to improve the well being of humanity. I believe that an imposition that lowers well being is immoral.

Paul said...

Yeah, that debate's a good 2+ hours from memory. Would love to find the time to watch it at some point...

I agree with Harris's proposition as you describe it, although I guess that in practice there are some limits in how (and to who) it is applied. I have very little sympathy for Lane Craig's position, assuming it hasn't changed in the last few years. I'd enjoy seeing Harris lay out his case over an extended discussion.

It seems there are some fairly immutable parts of human experience - fear, pain and deprivation - that seem to be what we try and avoid. Avoiding these and not inflicting them on others would be the basis of the typically shared aspects of morality common to most cultures; they provide social stability because of their affect on wellbeing.

However, cultures find their own rules about how wide a circle to apply these rules to (especially when protecting their interests), which seem to be the source of large amounts of discrepancy between them. Hence, maybe you don't eat your neighbour because you wouldn't want the neighbour on the other side to start eyeing you up for tomorrow's meal. But your enemy in a war might be a different matter.

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