Question 2: The Question of Morality

WHAT I BELIEVE

Question 2: What is Good and what is Evil? Are there any absolute moral standards?

The question of morality is no longer a question of pure philosophy; it is fast becoming an issue of science, and even a little scientific light on the subject seems to remove a lot of confusion. I am inclined to agree with the point of view which states that humans possess a certain ‘sense’ of morality as a result of our evolutionary past. Just like our capacity for language has been built in our brains by evolution and due to which the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal among all human languages, similarly our moral judgments have an underlying, deep moral grammar which is universal. All humans possess this moral sense. Good is what satisfies this moral sense; Evil is what does not satisfy this moral sense. (An analogy could be the sense of taste; food is tasty if it satisfies our sense of taste, it is distasteful if it does not.) The urge to do good is basically innate; we are programmed to be good. The majority of humans have a sense of right and wrong which surpasses cultural and religious barriers. Moral principles like ‘Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you’ are a part of the ethical code of all societies. However, this moral sense can not only be influenced and modified, but also over-ridden by social and religious factors. The religious practices which go against the moral sense have to be preached with greater fervor and threat of punishment than would be necessary for practices which are in flow with the moral sense, and even then, most people can still feel a conflict between these two forces, even though they may choose to remain silent about it. For example, most people feel that it is wrong to kill an apostate just because he changed his religion, and yet, apostates are killed in the world. This is an example of religion over-riding the moral sense. (Taking the analogy, we might eat a food item which tastes horrible but which we believe would benefit our health; the concern for health over-riding the sense of taste.)

The moral sense develops as a result of a complex interaction between the innate moral faculty and the society. And as society undergoes changes, there is also a change in morals. At a particular time, there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus over what is right and what is wrong. The term Zeitgeist, ‘spirit of the ages’ or ‘spirit of the times’, is often used to designate this consensus. This consensus is of course not absolutely uniform; considerable variations do occur. This Zeitgeist changes over decades and centuries. For example, most believing Muslims believe that slavery was allowed in Islam at the time of Prophet Muhammad and was a perfectly normal part of the society, yet most believing Muslims today, even the fundamentalists, believe that it would be wrong to take someone as slave.

Since morality is a result of the moral instinct programmed inside humans, it means that morality is not independent of humans. If there were no humans in this universe, there would be no issue of good and evil. Hence, there are no objective moral standards. And since the moral sense differs from person to person, and from society to society, and from time to time, there are no absolute moral standards as well. It is true that some people have a greater urge to be altruistic and kind, and some people have a weaker urge (some people have a more efficient sense of taste, and some people have a poor sense of taste), but the Zeitgeist of the society offers a guideline of action to even those people whose moral sense is poor. (Just as the gustatory customs of a society offer a guideline of eating for people whose sense of taste is poor.)

I believe in two fundamental rules concerning ethics:

1) If you want to know what is right and wrong, look down deep inside your heart, forgetting all what your society and religion has told you, and you’ll find out the answer; an answer that would satisfy your moral sense. And then, follow what your heart says.
2) Your moral jurisdiction extends to the limits of your nose. You can only make an ethical decision for your ownself. You cannot enforce your sense of ethics on other people. Make your own decisions and let other people make theirs.

Here, I stand in direct contrast to religion. Religious people believe that people are good because they are driven by the fear of hell and the temptation of heaven. I believe this to be a mistake. The hell and heaven might be an influencing factor but they are not the source of morality. Just ask yourself, “If God ceases to exist, would you start committing theft, rape, murder and start telling lies and become unkind to people?” If you answer this question in positive, then you are simply an immoral person. And if you answer this question in negative, as most people would, it would show that your moral behaviour persists despite the absence of a divine being. Good people will be good people whether God exists or not. And I also believe that religion is not always a source of good, but many times a source of evil and suffering in the world. The instances of religious persecution are innumerable. All the reformation movements in the world religions have been an attempt to update their religion to the moral Zeitgeist of their times, because religions because of their insistence of following the ancient scriptures tend to have static morals, which become brutal if they do not develop along with the society, just like slavery has now become brutal. The Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg was very right when he said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

[Added later as a Post Script: My answer to the Question 2 has its limitations, as would be apparent to a philosopher. It still doesn't answer the ultimate 'ought' question of Ethics.That is, i have said that "Good is what is done in accordance with our moral sense."However, this is exposed to the question, "Why ought we follow our moral sense?" I don't have any answer to this. This is just another way of showing that ethical axioms lack a rational validity. Ethical axioms are not 'logically necessary'.]

Comments

Awais said…
A friend of mine commented that if people believed that God didn't exist, they certainly would begin to commit crimes and unethical acts.

First, even if this is true, it doesn't show that God is the source of morality. It just shows that the fear of God makes a person follow the morals of his particular religion. But the actual source of morals remains the moral faculty inside human mind, not some religious scripture.

Secondly, fear of God is no doubt a great influence, but i don't believe that it is the primary factor that keeps a person from committing crimes. The crime rate of a society doesn't depend on how much religious the people are, but rather on how efficient the police and the judidiciary is. It is the fear of Law which primarily prevents crime, not the fear of God. In a lawless society, fear of hell alone is incapable of preventing crime.
SP said…
Awais ..Just felt like sharing my views on this ... What you say is true ..but there is another aspect to this thinking ...

Police and judiciary system can confine some crimes..crimes which were physically manifested . Ek hota hai Paap aur Ek hota hai Gunaah . Paap hota hai ke insaan ne bura karne ka socha .. he thought about harming somebody .. Kisi ki property par ..kisi insaan par buri nigaah rakhna bhi Paap kehlaayega .. magar woh ehsaas society se ..judiciary system se chhupa hua hai .

Police haathoN aur peyroN mein zanjeerien daal sakti hai ke insaan chori na karey ..daaka na daaley ..magar kisi ke mann par (bura sochne ke liye)..kisi ki aankhoN mein(buri nigaah rakhne par) to police zanjeerieN nahi daal sakti na..jab yehi Paap jiskey baare mein insaan soch raha tha ..jab woh usey physically commit karta hai to woh Gunaah ban jaata hai ..

Har Paap aur Gunaah kii seeds umooman khwaahishoN mein hoti hai ..kamzor insaan Paap karta hai aur taaqatwar insaan Gunaah karta hai .. somebody who has lots of money and connections and knows that judicial system cant touch him can physically commit the crime . kamzor insaan khwaahish karega ..aur bura sochne ka Paap bhi karega magar usey physically implement nahi karega because of fear of law. Isiliye ye bhi kaha jaata hai ke 'Power Corrupts' and absolute power corrupts absolutely ..

Fear of Law can stop a person from committing physical crime . Fear of God stops a person from even thinking about comitting crime (jo insaan bura sochega woh mauqa milne par bura karega bhi..)

Ek aur nanhi si baat .. Kisi ne kaha tha Allah ka darr kisi khunkaar sipaahi ka darr nahi .. Allah ka darr kisi beydard hukumraan ka darr bhi nahi .. Khuda ka darr to ek mehboob kii naraazgii ka darr hota hai ... Ke mein kuchh kaisa na keh jaauN ..mein kuchh aisa na kahuN ya sochuN ke mera mehboob mujhse naaraaz ho jaaye ...

Allah ye darr har insaan ko bakhshey...
Awais said…
My answer to the Question 2 has its limitations, as would be apparent to a philosopher. It still doesn't answer the ultimate 'ought' question of Ethics.

That is, i have said that "Good is what is done in accordance with our moral sense."
However, this is exposed to the question, "Why ought we follow our moral sense?" I don't have any answer to this. This is just another way of showing that ethical axioms lack a rational validity. Ethical axioms are not 'logically necessary'.
SP said…
Awais .. Basically all axioms have that basic limitation in any area and that is why they are different then theorems ....

Any In case , while I am enjoying the philosphical perspective you are using to evaluate Religion ..I would also like to share a beautiful excerpt from Dr Mohammed Iqbal's "Reconstruct of Religious thought in Islam".
-----------------------


Is it then possible to apply the purely rational method of philosophy to religion? The spirit of philosophy is one of free inquiry. It suspects all authority. Its function is to trace the uncritical assumptions of human thought to their hiding places, and in this pursuit it may finally end in denial or a frank admission of the incapacity of pure reason to reach the Ultimate Reality. The essence of religion, on the other hand, is faith; and faith, like the bird, sees its ‘trackless way’ unattended by intellect which, in the words of the great mystic poet of Islam, ‘only waylays the living heart of man and robs it of the invisible wealth of life that lies within’.1 Yet it cannot be denied that faith is more than mere feeling. It has something like a cognitive content, and the existence of rival parties— scholastics and mystics— in the history of religion shows that idea is a vital element in religion. Apart from this, religion on its doctrinal side, as defined by Professor Whitehead, is ‘a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended’.2 Now, since the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion, it is obvious that the general truths which it embodies must not remain unsettled. No one would hazard action on the basis of a doubtful principle of conduct. Indeed, in view of its function, religion stands in greater need of a rational foundation of its ultimate principles than even the dogmas of science. Science may ignore a rational metaphysics; indeed, it has ignored it so far. Religion can hardly afford to ignore the search for a reconciliation of the oppositions of experience and a justification of the environment in which humanity finds itself. That is why Professor Whitehead has acutely remarked that ‘the ages of faith are the ages of rationalism’.3 But to rationalize faith is not to admit the superiority of philosophy over religion. Philosophy, no doubt, has jurisdiction to judge religion, but what is to be judged is of such a nature that it will not submit to the jurisdiction of philosophy except on its own terms. While sitting in judgement on religion, philosophy cannot give religion an inferior place among its data. Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man. Thus, in the evaluation of religion, philosophy must recognize the central position of religion and has no other alternative but to admit it as something focal in the process of reflective synthesis. Nor is there any reason to suppose that thought and intuition are essentially opposed to each other. They spring up from the same root and complement each other. The one grasps Reality piecemeal, the other grasps it in its wholeness. The one fixes its gaze on the eternal, the other on the temporal aspect of Reality. The one is present enjoyment of the whole of Reality; the other aims at traversing the whole by slowly specifying and closing up the various regions of the whole for exclusive observation. Both are in need of each other for mutual rejuvenation. Both seek visions of the same Reality which reveals itself to them in accordance with their function in life. In fact, intuition, as Bergson rightly says, is only a higher kind of intellect.
Source : http://www.allamaiqbal.com/works/prose/english/reconstruction/index.htm


Hope you enjoyed reading it..
Awais said…
Yeah, i have read the whole lecture by Iqbal. Though i found it interesting and enjoyable to read, i almost completely disagree with Iqbal's approach. Iqbal's view of philosophy is too much dominated by continental and metaphysical thought. He shows no influence at all of the very powerful and critical philosophical movement of Logical Analysis, by philosophers such as Russll and Wittgenstein. Iqbal is eager to quote Bergson and Whitehead whenever it suits him, but the metaphysical systems of philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead have been demolished a long time ago by Logical Analysis.

And i do not believe that faith has any cognitive element whatsoever. I consider it ironic, but it is my view that Iqbal was 'misguided' by his confidence in the power of faith.
Awais said…
Nevertheless, the central point of my original post was that the source of morality is a moral sense, owing to which we feel good or bad about certain things we do.

The fear of God may be an influencing factor, which i believe to be highly exaggerated, but even if fear of God helps people be good, the source of morality still remains the moral sense. And also, the usefulness of any idea (God in this case), whatever little or large it may be, does not logically imply the existence of that idea.

Atheists are as much moral and immoral as the rest of the people in the community are. There is no significant difference.
SP said…
Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.
---------Khalil Gibran

[Atheists are as much moral and immoral as the rest of the people in the community are ]

My feelings are different .. I feel that Religion and Morality are closely knitted .. If a person says he is religious and is immoral then i feel its hypocracy there..

To qoute Gibran in 'The Prophet'
Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?

Who can spread his hours before him, saying, "This for God and this for myself; This for my soul, and this other for my body?"

All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self.

He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.

The wind and the sun will tear no holes in his skin.

And he who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage.

The freest song comes not through bars and wires.

And he to whom worshipping is a window, to open but also to shut, has not yet visited the house of his soul whose windows are from dawn to dawn.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion.

Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.

Take the plough and the forge and the mallet and the lute,

The things you have fashioned in necessity or for delight.

For in revery you cannot rise above your achievements nor fall lower than your failures.

And take with you all men:

For in adoration you cannot fly higher than their hopes nor humble yourself lower than their despair.

And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.

Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.

And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain.

You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.
Awais said…
The "God" and "Religion" of Kahlil Gibran are very different from the organized religions like Christianity and Islam.

When Khalil Gibran says, "Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof." it is my view that he is talking about the innate moral faculty of man.
I said this myself in the post, as my first fundamental rule of ethics:
"If you want to know what is right and wrong, look down deep inside your heart."

The 'faith from the heart' is independent of whichever religion you choose. Even Atheists share it.

When Rousseau talks of following your heart as a moral guide in the Natural Religion of Enlightenment, he is not advocating Christianity (of which he was a strong critic). He was simply asking you to follow your moral sense.
Awais said…
@ SP

If a person says he is religious and is immoral then i feel its hypocracy there..

If a person really believes that God has ordered believers to kill apostates, and he does so to please his God, is he being moral or immoral? And why?
SP said…
When a number of people from various angles and distances have a look at the sea, each man sees a portion of it according to his horizon. Though each man may say that what he sees is the real sea, all of them speak the truth, for all of them see portions of the same wide expanse. So the religious scriptures, though they seem to contain varying and conflicting statements, speak the truth, for they are all descriptions of that one infinite Reality. [Vivekananda]
SP said…
[If a person really believes that God has ordered believers to kill apostates, and he does so to please his God, is he being moral or immoral? And why? ]

Alama Iqbal ne likha tha ..
'mazhab nahi sikhaata aapas mein vaer karnaa...'
Like I said before if people misinterpret religion/faith the problem is with interpretation and not with the faith ...

but probably this is a point where we are talking about two different things ... The Religion I talk about is the faith inside .. the love and peace and giving .... and the aspect you are condemning is probably what i call a misinterpretation ...
Awais said…
the aspect you are condemning is probably what i call a misinterpretation ...

A misinterpretation of what?
Of the religious scripture?
Or of the innate moral sense?
SP said…
Misinterpretation of Religion/faith ..."Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking", said Kahlil Gibran. To discover faith that can lead us to consciousness of the infinite, we have to calm the mind, fill our heart with unconditional love and compassion, and listen to the sound of silence, the eternal song of the Absolute.
Awais said…
@ sp

Ignoring the literary acrobatics, philosophically speaking your position is not very different from mine. 'Listening to your heart' is more or less a flowery way of saying 'Follow your innate moral sense'. Calling it 'religion' only creates confusion.

Your view of Religion is very different from the view of the Religion of the major (Abrahamic) religions on the world, which stress that the will of God is to be found in the religious scripture. The believers believe that eternal truths are to be found in whatever religious text they believe in (Bible, Koran, Talmud etc), and not in 'sound of silence' as you propose. Strictly speaking, your 'faith' should not be called 'religion' at all. What you suggest is more or less a mystic philosophy... it has very little in common with organized religions like Islam and Christianity.
SP said…
I apologize if I use too many poetical and literary jargons ... smiles... but philosophy is too dry for me ...

When Life does not find a singer to sing her heart she produces a philosopher to speak her mind.

and I like the music of the heart ..Morals and Ethics are the stepping stones for the right path .. but I not only want to walk on the right path ..but I want to enjoy the journey too .. I want to feel warmth and love in the colors of the evening sun .. in the texture and colors of sand , in the chuckle of a baby .. in the smile hiding behind the wrinkles of an old lady ....

Being a Medical student dont you ever wonder about the marvellous science that a human body is .. how the planets work in perfect harmony in their orbits ..escape velocity ..orbital velocity .. how everything has structure ... You have read 'Da Vinci Code' The best thing I enjoyed in the book was about Phi (Fibonacci Series) - The Divine number ... It is science .. but still it is called the divine number ... because doesn't it feel too much of a coincidence that this number is reflected in so many things in nature....

... "Koi to hai ji nizaam-e-hastii chala raha hai..."

Without a "nizaam" ..a "coordinator" it is so difficult to even run a small organization .. leave alone a nation ... there should be somebody running this whole show so brilliantly...

I probably am Ignorant in the area , I have not read all religious texts .. may be in bits and pieces .. It needs years of studies and ability to comprehend it well ...but so far what I have read I have liked it .. I have seen verses telling a person to have faith and walk on the right path ...

But I agree with you that probably when I say Religion .. I am not talking about mere physical actions (some people start drawing pleasure in that too ..they can serve as reminders) ..When I say Religion its the love of the Almighty in your heart .. its the brightness of the faith in your heart ...
Ali K. said…
/Religious people believe that people are good because they are driven by the fear of hell and the temptation of heaven. I believe this to be a mistake./

:)
"I carry a torch in one hand
And a bucket of water with the other,
With these things, I will set fire to Heaven
And put out the flames of Hell
So that no one worship God
Out of fear of Hell
Or greed of Heaven."
- Rabia Basri , Sufi.

/A friend of mine commented that if people believed that God didn't exist, they certainly would begin to commit crimes and unethical acts./

heheh. I put such people into the Euthyphro dilemma[http://towelianism.wordpress.com/2007/02/20/the-euthyphro-dilemma/]. We go on in circles for hours.lol
Awais said…
Oh, i didn't know that this particular argument was called Euthyphro dilemma. Nice. Thanks for informing.
Anonymous said…
Awais, do you fast in the month of Ramazan? If yes,then why?
Awais said…
It's a cultural activity; i like to be a part of it :)