West London Humanists and Secularists

What is Morality?

A Response to a Human Need
The project takes a very practical view of morality. Hundreds of thousands of man-years have been spent trying to define precisely what morality is without there being widespread agreement. Rather than adding to this mostly fruitless activity, the project simply observes what happens in practice.
Morality is the accumulated wisdom that guides us towards obtaining something that is valued. Morality will have a different scope depending on what scope of valued things are considered to have moral content. Although there will be continual disagreement, if not evolution, of what lies in that moral sphere there is broad agreement that it guides us towards such things as:

  • Personal happiness or well-being
  • Better personal relationships with other people
  • A more peaceful and happy society
It is very clear that each and all of us have much to gain from such wisdom and its accumulation by our species has been a major factor in its survival.

Evolution of morality
Whatever the moral sphere is or becomes, does not alter the way in which morality develops. The diagram below gives a rough idea of how this happens. We can model it as layers of co-evolving guidance determined by what we want to achieve in the moral sphere.

At the top level of the guidance hierarchy are what could be called principles, which are brief statements with very wide scope such as "Do as you would be done by" (The Golden Rule). These can be applied directly to our day to day decisions but can also be applied to classes of moral decision that are important enough to require rather more specific and detailed guidance - policies. Society will find reasons to be even more specific about some of these classes and elaborate the policies into highly specific laws. Our day to day decisions, then, may be guided by Laws, Policies and Principles. Feedback on the usefulness of Decisions, Laws and Policies can help to improve the higher levels of guidance. Obviously there are other, and maybe better, ways of modelling this and hopefully we will develop them. In the meantime,we might do well to remember the maxim "All models are false, but some are useful".

It should be noted that the model is very generic and might be equally valid, for instance, as a starting point for managing the guidance that a large engineering company gives to its field operatives to help them make dozens of "engineering" decisions every working day. In such cases, no one is embarrassed by the fact that the guidance evolves. It is an inescapable requirement in order to keep pace with change and to increase competitiveness.

Absolutism and Relativism in Morality
Theists will usually add the relationship with their god to the moral sphere and, of course, claim that their moral guidance has not been developed by humanity but declared by god as rules to live by. They usually use the term "absolute" to describe their morals which they see as fixed for all times and places and as having an existence independent of human beings, while in practice they frequently find reason to make exceptions, and "reinterpretations". Despite this, they decry secular morality as being "relative".

This is to completely ignore the way morality evolves in a population. The nature and needs of humanity ensure that morality has and will evolve without any divine guidance. Morals are not absolute in the sense of being fixed for all times and places and in this sense they are relative. However theists like to jump from a fair definition of "relative" to one which parodies the atheist's morality as constantly changing according to whatever is convenient, if not with the weather. This ignores the fact that the wider the scope of a particular piece of moral guidance, the less frequently it is likely to change. The Golden Rule, for instance, has been known to numerous cultures for millennia. Furthermore, commitment to respect such wisdom and live by it need be no less firm than the commitment some give to a religion's claimed absolutes. It is because principles can be so enduring that they can feel so essential to our nature and that people often think they have an existence independent of humanity. If religions disappeared such wisdom would still be available to us and respected .

Although our morals are not absolute, they do depend on some things that might be called "universal". These are common capacities that have evolved in the animal kingdom and are most visible in the higher primates and particularly in Homo Sapiens. Arguably they include:
  • Altruism - the instinctive kindness of the Triax rather than the calculated kindness of the Golden Rule
  • Intellectual abilities
  • Empathy - the ability to recognize or imagine the feelings of others, and to imagine how our behaviour might seem to them
  • The ability to forgive.
It is by the use of these capabilities that moral codes have been and will continue to be evolved.

This is very important to understand as even many atheists feel so battered by the taunt of relativism that they try to claim that morals are in some way absolute, even if they are not god-given. The right morals are absolute, they say, in that they are somehow out there waiting to be discovered. Given that we can be seen to be constructing morals using the moral evolution process anyway, we have no need to make such assumptions and Occam's razor demands that we don't. They might alternatively claim that morals are absolute in the other sense of being true for all times and places. This may appear so for some things because we cannot imagine any time or place when they would not be true but, if one moves from that to saying it is a moral that is independent of the process that created it, then one makes a mistake. Theists are very fond of claiming that there are absolute morals not created by man and that therefore god exists as they must have come from somewhere - a god. Their thinking gets even looser as they start to claim that this proves that their particular god exists.

Merging moral codes
Much of the conflict in the world comes from competing moral codes that have evolved in different "populations". The diagram below suggests that open discussion between "populations" could lead progressively towards agreement on a common morality which is wiser and more widely acceptable than any from which it was derived.

This process has in fact being going on for millennia but, as with languages for instance, other processes that tend to make moralities differentiate are also present. The project is clearly trying to catalyse the merging process but we should not expect to achieve much beyond agreement on principles and some policies. Their implementation as laws and daily decisions will be very dependent on particular times and geographies.