Morality: Theistic vs Secular

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comoke1024's picture
Morality: Theistic vs Secular

Hello AR,

I'm interested to hear everyone's, atheist and theist, opinions on the value of secular morality compared to Theistic morality. From the atheistic side, I mostly encounter examples about slavery, rape, and genocide stories in the Bible, but I am hoping to hear arguments from a wider perspective.

Also, if you have any links to debates on the topic, I would be very interested in those as well. Sam Harris is a particular favorite of mine, but I also enjoy a good Matt Dillahunty debate. Matt D vs. Matt Slick was enjoyable. I found Matt Slick to be intelligent and coherent in his arguments, though I disagreed with his position. However, Matt D. vs. Sye was (in my opinion, of course), embarrassing for Sye. If you want to hear a debate where one side argues 100% ad hominem by taking his opponent's quotes out of context and repeating "He's a brain in a vat" over and over, then this debate is for you!

Here are some questions to get started, if you are interested in responding:

How do you define morality?

Where does your morality come from? God? A holy book? Cheese? Empathy?

Which is superior, secular or theistic morality, and why?

When confronted with an opponent, how would you argue for your position on this matter?

Thank you all for any responses!

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LogicFTW's picture
@OP by Skeptical Kevin

@OP by Skeptical Kevin

How do you define morality?

I would rely on the dictionary definitions to avoid confusion.

Where does your morality come from? God? A holy book? Cheese? Empathy?

Out of that list, Empathy. I would also add: "need and expectation." I want to feel safe and free to do things, a basic: "treat others how you would like to be treated."

Which is superior, secular or theistic morality, and why?

As an atheist/secular person obviously I am going to favor Secular. To me it is far better grounded and based in reality then the theistic morality (which to me is essentially some old long dead person's opinionated and likely self serving to them morality rules that they wrote and made up.)

When confronted with an opponent, how would you argue for your position on this matter?

Perhaps being a bit glib, but, I would approach a theistic morality person as: my position on it is based on the here and now, while most theistic morality is usually ultimately based on the afterlife. If I were to adopt the theistic morality, what is to stop me from robbing you blind (if I could get away with it in the current life) and only have to pay my "dues" in the afterlife? Since afterlife is unevidenced to me, and I do not believe it exists, it pretty much becomes, why should I respect theistic morality at all? I am a nice person and do not have the need to steal from others, but, if I was a desperate person, and someone only held me to theistic morality, I would not hesitate to steal from them to feed myself and my family, especially if they could afford the loss.

To me theistic morality only works with the heaven/hell concept. W/o that, it is completely baseless and worthless. Anyone could do anything to anyone w/o repercussions. If they want to include rule of law, then I tell them it is no longer theistic based morality. People are punishing people for morality issues not "god."



I am an atheist that always likes a good debate
Please include @LogicFTW for responses to me
Tips on forum use. ▮ A.R. Member since 2016.

Cognostic's picture
All morality is secular.

All morality is secular. All religions pick and choose their moral dictates from their holy books. If you have listened to Matt D and Sam H, you have heard the best of the arguments for secular morality in my opinion.

A Holy Dictate is not moral. I can teach my damn dog not to climb up on the couch. Doing something because your church or religion tells you to do it is not moral. If I tell my child, "Don't hit your brother and I will give you a cookie." The child is not engaged in an act of morality by not hitting his brother. He is seeking a reward. No Christian can be offered the glory of heaven for good behavior and then claim to be engaged in an act of morality. They are simply engaged in greed and goal seeking.

Similarly, if I tell my child, "If you hit your brother again, I will beat you black and blue." The child is not engaged in morality when he does not hit his brother. He is engaged in fear and preservation of the self. This is not a moral decision. This is a decision to avoid pain and punishment. No Christian is capable of a moral act with the threat of Hell hanging over their head. Every Christian knows that they are not worthy and God will spew out of his mouth the lukewarm Christians. Following the Dictates of a God who rewards and punishes can in no possible way be moral. It requires no moral decision to avoid pain and punishment or to seek pleasure.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ Cog

@ Cog

Jeez mate, you are on a roll!

fiat124's picture
I agree

I agree

Cognostic's picture
Give a chimp a typewriter and

Give a chimp a typewriter and you never know what's going to happen.

arakish's picture
At least OUR chimp knows what

At least OUR chimp knows what to do with it...

Kudos, Dude.


fiat124's picture
I am new to atheist republic

I am new to atheist republic. There are so many posts to so many subjects how do all the posts get heard or responded to. How can this post even get read. I am just saying....

terraphon's picture
@fiat I read it...


I read it...

Cognostic's picture
Yes, when you are new,

Yes, when you are new, everything is lit up. Once you enter a thread and then exit is will no longer be lit up and will not light up again until a new post is made. All you do is keep up with the new posts as they roll in. It's not difficult.

Tin-Man's picture


Ummm... You do realize, I hope, that the "new" Fiat is actually not new in any way. He is really our ol' buddy Kenny. Cyber called him out in another thread. Just a heads up.

Cognostic's picture
Yea, I saw that. Well.....

Yea, I saw that. Well..... respect when respect is due ... and when it isn't.....there is always "Cog's Shovel."

LogicFTW's picture
Has anyone here watched "The

Has anyone here watched "The Umbrella Academy" on Netflix?

Pogo the chimp, the calm, logical voice of reason that is clearly smarter than the 1-5 superheroes combined.

Beyond Cognostic's avatar picture, I now associate Cognostic with Pogo. (I have not finished the series yet, so dont know if that changes, and no spoilers!)

arakish's picture
Logic: "Has anyone here

Logic: "Has anyone here watched "The Umbrella Academy" on Netflix?"

Never heard of it until just now. Then again, my TV almost never comes on unless I find a movie I like on the streamers I do get. Then I will "flick" the movie over to the TV and watch. Otherwise, TV holds almost no interest for me anymore.


Old man shouts at clouds's picture
Re " Umbrella Academy"

Re " Umbrella Academy"

My wife is an avid binger of that series on Netflix.

Meh the old superhero school schtick. However it is mostly well acted and the scripts don't completely suck. I have tolerated it for a few glimpses...but its an Orang Utan isn't it?

LogicFTW's picture
You might be right about that

You might be right about that, I think it looks more chimp than orangutan, (the ears and darker fur) but certainly pogo also does not perfectly match a chimp eithir. Could be some sort of weird comic style mix.

Randomhero1982's picture
How do you define morality?

How do you define morality?

Like others, I would go by the dictionary definition, which in this case is, "1Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour."

Where does your morality come from? God? A holy book? Cheese? Empathy?

Morality has and still evolves via society.

Which is superior, secular or theistic morality, and why?

Well my concept of morality has a preponderance of evidence to support it, so...

When confronted with an opponent, how would you argue for your position on this matter?

You don't really have to, once a person tries to invoke the supernatural to defend their position, they literally having nothing substantial to say.

It become a cause well it must be this way because...

Where as morality forming through societal structures is self evident!
Look how we change our morals these days compared to say 200 years ago?
Women have far more rights now, people of different ethnicities on the whole get along, homosexuality isn't frowned upon or even punished to the degree it was centuries ago.

We always evolve in society and our morals evolve accordingly.

arakish's picture
I had a discussion with

I had a discussion with another walk-about JW about this. All I had to do to confuse the two was ask: "How can you say your behavior is moral when you only do good to prevent the threat of eternal torment and torture and damnation of your God's Hell?" Both again just had that "deer in the head lamps" HUH? look. I just walked away.


comoke1024's picture
I agree with the reward

I agree with the reward/punishment argument, if a person does something because they want the reward or fear the punishment, it isn't truly moral. I would also add that if a person blindly obeys an authority figure, those actions couldn't be considered moral either. If I refuse to litter because either A) I'm afraid of punishment or B) The law says not to, that's not moral. If I refuse to litter because I have an understanding that polluting or environment is wrong and even more so when it is done to avoid the small inconvenience of throwing something away properly, that could be considered moral.

Thanks for the responses so far :)

Cognostic's picture
Now you have reached the

Now you have reached the Euthyphro dilemma. Is moral behavior moral in itself, independent of God's commands or is that which is moral. moral because it is commanded by God?

In the one case. when god commands to own slaves and kill he is being moral..
In the other, God is not needed for morality. Morality is objective and exists independent of God.

Tin-Man's picture
Again, why does everybody

Again, why does everybody keep making this whole morality thing so difficult?... *shaking head in bewildered manner*.... When faced with a difficult moral decision, just flip a coin like I do. Shit ain't that complicated.... *wink*...

Cognostic's picture
But Tin - Flipping a coin

But Tin - Flipping a coin does not take into account the complexity of decisions making. You are a machine and incapable of the vastness of human response. Your "coin flip" is just "Automation bias" A dependence on automation. And it displays a distinct Empathy gap. You are not taking into account how difficult a decision is for a human being. Humans must deal with......

Ambiguity effect - avoiding outcomes that are unknown.

Anchoring - Using that first piece of information as gospel.

Anthropocentric thinking - Using human reasoning for less familiar biological phenomena.

Anthropomorphism - Ascribing human emotion to abstract content, imbuing situations with human meaning.

Attentional bias - The same thought keeps popping up so you choose it.

Availability heuristic - The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater "availability" in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be

Availability cascade - A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or "repeat something long enough and it will become true")

Bandwagon effect - The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to group-think and herd behavior.

Base rate fallacy - The tendency to ignore base rate information (generic, general information) and focus on specific information (information only pertaining to a certain case)

Ben Franklin effect - Are you making the decision you are making just to please another or fit in socially?

Berkson's paradox - The tendency to misinterpret statistical experiments involving conditional probabilities.

Bias blind spot - Seeing oneself as less biased than other people

Confirmation bias - The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.

Conjunction fallacies - The tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones.

Courtesy bias - (See Ben Franklin)

Declinism - The predisposition to view the past favorably (rosy retrospection) and future negatively. Tendency to do things the way we have always done them.

Duration neglect - The neglect of the duration of an episode in determining its value.

Focusing effect - The tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of an event.

Framing effect - Drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented.

IKEA effect - The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result.

Illicit transference - Occurs when a term in the distributive (referring to every member of a class) and collective (referring to the class itself as a whole) sense are treated as equivalent. The two variants of this fallacy are the fallacy of composition and the fallacy of division.

AND WE ARE ONLY UP TO THE LETTER "I'. There are so many more considerations. You heartless mechanical bastard. If making a decision was so frigging easy I would not have spent the night standing naked in the middle of my bedroom wondering if I should go to the bathroom and shower before going to bed, get something to eat, take off my shoes, or just wait until morning.

Tin-Man's picture
@Cog Re: "If making a

@Cog Re: "If making a decision was so frigging easy I would not have spent the night standing naked in the middle of my bedroom wondering if I should go to the bathroom and shower before going to bed, get something to eat, take off my shoes, or just wait until morning."

...*thinking to self*... Hmmm... Would it be morally okay for me to add a few drops of "liquid farts" to Cog's shampoo bottle and then sprinkle a bunch of itching powder in his bed sheets?... *flipping coin*.... *catching coin*... *placing coin on back of wrist*... *looking at coin*... Heads! Dammit! And I was so looking forward to videoing his reactions... *placing coin back in pocket*...

See how easy that was, Cog?

Cognostic's picture
Jokes on you, there are

Jokes on you, there are already liquid farts in my shampoo and itching powder in my bed sheets, how in the fuck do you think I got this bright shinning friendly personality!!!

Tin-Man's picture
@Cog Re: "Jokes on you,

@Cog Re: "Jokes on you, there are already liquid farts in my shampoo and itching powder in my bed sheets..."

Well, hell... That explains a lot. And all this time I thought it was Old Man's feet I've been smelling around here. Just didn't want to say anything to hurt his feelings. (In all fairness, though, the coin toss on that decision also came up heads.)

dogalmighty's picture
I rape, murder, torture,

I rape, murder, torture, pillage, steal, lie, and abuse animals with a fork, when I feel like it...I just have never felt like it ever. A cardinal rapes children...a cardinal sin...excuse the pun, but...theists have reason to contravign true moral behavior...where atheists innate morality works well. I have always said, you have to be religious to be immoral. Unfortunately, that keeps ringing true. Still no action taken about the Australian cardinal child rapist, by the pope...I wonder if the pope likes sucking off children too?

Cognostic's picture
DoG: I agree with

DoG: I agree with everything but the "abuse animals with a fork" part. I had steak for dinner.

dogalmighty's picture
Ok about about I

Ok about about I change the line to...abuse animals with cheap BBQ sauce? :)

Randomhero1982's picture
This is why I argue that

This is why I argue that morality has clearly evolved via society/civilisation.

Why do we not all kill? Because society dictates it is wrong and we have evolved over time to become accustomed to this train of thought.

It benefits the group to treat each other better in order to have cohesion.

You could argue that we could, as a species all become vegan overtime.
Providing that it is not forced and the going down that path is positively reinforced.

Although I won't, like cog I had steak lol
Peppercorn sauce.......nom

dogalmighty's picture
Its genetic...everything

Its genetic...everything basically is. The fact that religion co-optes it for its own gain, is unto itself, immoral.
I don't agree that society dictates it. It is not trends that are enforced by evolution, but the ability to survive...any mutation that promotes survival of the species, survives...not whether peoples opinion to become vegan, is a better choice.

Calilasseia's picture
There's a wealth of

There's a wealth of scientific literature pointing to the biological and evolutionary basis for our capacity for ethical thought, and action thereupon. Be preapred for a long read ahead.

By now, everyone here has almost certainly seen this video clip, featuring Frans de Waal and his work on primate behaviour, but it's instructive to look at the papers, starting with:

Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay by Sarah F. Brosnan & Frans B. M. de Waal, Nature, 425: 297-299 (18th September 2003) [Abstract available here]

During the evolution of cooperation it may have become critical for individuals to compare their own efforts and pay-offs with those of others. Negative reactions may occur when expectations are violated. One theory proposes that aversion to inequity can explain human cooperation within the bounds of the rational choice model [1], and may in fact be more inclusive than previous explanations [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Although there exists substantial cultural variation in its particulars, this 'sense of fairness' is probably a human universal [9, 10] that has been shown to prevail in a wide variety of circumstances [11, 12, 13]. However, we are not the only cooperative animals [14], hence inequity aversion may not be uniquely human. Many highly cooperative nonhuman species seem guided by a set of expectations about the outcome of cooperation and the division of resources [15, 16]. Here we demonstrate that a nonhuman primate, the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella), responds negatively to unequal reward distribution in exchanges with a human experimenter. Monkeys refused to participate if they witnessed a conspecific obtain a more attractive reward for equal effort, an effect amplified if the partner received such a reward without any effort at all. These reactions support an early evolutionary origin of inequity aversion.

Another paper of interest is this one:

Primates—A Natural Heritage Of Conflict Resolution by Frans B. M. de Waal, Science, 289: 586-590 (28th July 2000) [Full paper downloadable from here]

The traditional notion of aggression as an antisocial instinct is being replaced by a framework that considers it a tool of competition and negotiation. When survival depends on mutual assistance, the expression of aggression is constrained by the need to maintain beneficial relationships. Moreover, evolution has produced ways of countering its disruptive consequences. For example, chimpanzees kiss and embrace after fights, and other nonhuman primates engage in similar "reconciliations." Theoretical developments in this field carry implications for human aggression research. From families to high schools, aggressive conflict is subject to the same constraints known of cooperative animal societies. It is only when social relationships are valued that one can expect the full complement of natural checks and balances.

Indeed, the opening paragraph is highly informative on its own ...

With the early provocative description of Australopithecus as a lustful killer and the appearance of Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression in 1967, the origins of violence became a central theme in debates about human social evolution (1, 2). Popular authors spun the now familiar scenario according to which inborn aggressiveness, combined with male bonding in hunting and warfare, explains the human success story. The extraordinary appeal of this “killer ape” myth (3) has been attributed to the horrors of World War II. Confidence in human nature was at a low after the war, and the view that we are murderous psychopaths—or “a mentally unbalanced predator, threatening an otherwise harmonious natural realm” [(4), p. 14]—went down remarkably easily with scientists and the general public alike.

de Waal moves on to comment thus:

If we disregard this larger evolutionary debate and focus on the original research, it is obvious that aggressive behavior was studied as an individual rather than a social phenomenon. For example, Lorenz proposed his controversial drive concept according to which aggressive energy builds up endogenously, after which it seeks an outlet, whether in sports or warfare. He also emphasized genetic determinants, postulating an aggressive instinct (1). Psychologists, in contrast, developed their frustration-aggression hypothesis and studied the effects of role models and authorities (5). However different these outlooks, authors on both sides of the nature-nurture divide agreed on the antisocial character of aggressive behavior. According to ethologists, its main function was to cause dispersal, a view derived from territorial fish and birds in which threat displays do indeed serve to keep intruders at a distance. Psychologists,too, only saw negative consequences when a mouse was placed in a rat’s cage to provoke an attack, when pain-induced aggression was incited among rats on an electric grid, or when human subjects were instructed to deliver high-voltage shocks to strangers (6). Focusing on aggression among individuals that did not know each other, students of both human and animal behavior thus laid the groundwork for what may be called the individual model [(7) and Fig. 1].

Inasmuch as the individual model is oblivious to social context, it fails to address how families or societies deal with the disruptive consequences of conflict. The model tells us how aggression starts, but not how it ends or is kept under control. In the real world, however, the vast majority of aggression involves familiar individuals, which means that aggressors and victims share a past and can be expected to share a future. A different model was needed, therefore, one that regards individuals as socially embedded. Inspired by gregarious study objects, primatologists were the first to move toward this more integrated paradigm.

Primate societies are characterized by cooperation. Some species, such as chimpanzees [Pan troglodytes (8)] and humans, show collective intercommunity violence. More often, however, alliances are formed within the group with two or more individuals banding together to defeat a third (9). As a result, high-ranking individuals are not necessarily the strongest, but the ones that can mobilize most support (10). The ubiquitous primate activity of grooming serves an important role in this political arena by fostering valuable partnerships (11). All members of a group are actively establishing and maintaining histories of interaction, known as social relationships. Studying monkeys and apes in cohesive groups, in both captivity and the field, primatologists increasingly made relationships, rather than individuals, the unit of analysis (12).

At the same time that these ideas arose, a simple observation changed the way we look at the social impact of conflict. Earlier research on nonhuman primates had emphasized appeasement and reassurance gestures (13, 14) and had hinted at relationship repair after fights (15–17). The latter phenomenon was named and empirically defined as the result of an incident in the world’s largest chimpanzee colony at the Arnhem Zoo, in the Netherlands. When the alpha male fiercely attacked a female, other apes came to her defense, causing prolonged screaming and chasing in the group. After the chimpanzees had calmed down, a tense silence followed, broken when the entire colony burst out hooting. In the midst of this pandemonium, two chimpanzees kissed with their arms wrapped around each other (Fig. 2). These two chimpanzees turned out to be the same male and female central in the previous fight.

After reconciliation was defined as a friendly reunion between former opponents not long after an aggressive confrontation, data on hundreds of instances showed the pattern to be a regular, conspicuous part of social life in the Arnhem chimpanzee colony (18). Combined with other developments in the 1970s, this meant that a solid framework for the study of conflict resolution had come into place revolving around the following three elements: (i) indications of a calming function of grooming and other body contacts, (ii) recognition of long-term social relationships and their survival value, and (iii) demonstration of a connection between aggressive conflict and subsequent interopponent reunions, called “reconciliations.”

Meanwhile, it's apposite here to cover another paper, namely:

Empathy: Its Ultimate And Proximate Bases by Stephanie D. Preston and Frans de Waal, Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 25: 1-20 (2001). The full paper is downloadable from here. Here is the abstract, with appropriate sections highlighted in bold:

There is disagreement in the literature about the exact nature of the phenomenon of empathy. There are emotional, cognitive, and conditioning views, applying in varying degrees across species. An adequate description of the ultimate and proximate mechanism can integrate these views. Proximately, the perception of an object's state activates the subject's corresponding representations, which in turn activate somatic and autonomic responses. This mechanism supports basic behaviors (e.g., alarm, social facilitation, vicariousness of emotions, mother-infant responsiveness, and the modeling of competitors and predators) that are crucial for the reproductive success of animals living in groups. The Perception-Action Model (PAM), together with an understanding of how representations change with experience, can explain the major empirical effects in the literature (similarity, familiarity, past experience, explicit teaching, and salience). It can also predict a variety of empathy disorders. The interaction between the PAM and prefrontal functioning can also explain different levels of empathy across species and age groups. This view can advance our evolutionary understanding of empathy beyond inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism and can explain different levels of empathy across individuals, species, stages of development, and situations.

So already we have a paper that discusses evolutionary explanations for altruism. Let's take a further look at this, shall we?

In an experiment with rhesus monkeys, subjects were trained to pull two chains that delivered different amounts of food. The experimenters then altered the situation so that pulling the chain with the larger reward caused a monkey in sight of the subject to be shocked. After the subjects witnessed the shock of the conspecific, two-thirds preferred the nonshock chain even though it resulted in half as many rewards. Of the remaining third, one stopped pulling the chains altogether for 5 days and another for 12 days after witnessing the shock of the object. These monkeys were literally starving themselves to prevent the shock to the conspecific. Starvation was induced more by visual than auditory cues, was more likely in animals that had experienced shock themselves, and was enhanced by familiarity with the shocked individual (Masserman et al. 1964).

So we have hard experimental evidence that rhesus macaques will suffer privation rather than see fellow members of their species endure pain. Which means that these organisms possess empathy for each other that is directly observable, and reflects the sort of empathic responses that used to be thought to be exclusive to humans.

Continuing, the authors write:

These examples, all from empirical reports, show that individuals of many species are distressed by the distress of a conspecific and will act to terminate the object’s distress, even incurring risk to themselves. Humans and other animals exhibit the same robust effects of familiarity, past experience, and cue salience (Table 1), and parallels exist between the development of empathy in young humans and the phylogenetic emergence of empathy (de Waal 1996; Hoffman 1990, respectively). These facts suggest that empathy is a phylogenetically continuous phenomenon, as suggested by Charles Darwin more than a century ago (1871/1982).

So the notion that empathy, and as a consequence, altruistic behaviour, is a natural consequence of evolutionary processes can be traced in the scientific literature all the way back to Darwin. Which means that an evolutionary explanation for altruism is anything but a recent development.

The paper concludes with:

The complex social world of primates requires the central nervous system to perceive the facial expressions, body postures, gestures, and voices of conspecifics accurately and quickly in order to generate a response (Brothers 1990; Byrne & Whiten 1988). Parsimoniously, the same nervous system link between perception and action that helps us to navigate the physical environment helps us navigate the social environment. The perception-action link allows for facile motor skill acquisition as well as facile social interaction, as we perceive external conditions and incorporate them into our current plan of action. In this way, the proximate model is intricately linked with the ultimate model. While natural selection acts on phenotypes, these phenotypes reflect the underlying physiology. Thus, the general design of the nervous system, created through millions of years of evolution, should be considered a factor in the evolution of emotional processes like empathy and overt behaviors like helping. In this way, the proximate and ultimate levels of analysis are intimately related.

So, the authors conclude that in order to act in an altruistic manner, what is needed is:

[1] An ability to relate perceptions to actions within an internal mental model of some sort (and the model in question doesn't have to be anywhere near as intricate as ours);

[2] An ability to relate responses of other organisms of the same species to a given external action, to our own likely actions to those same external actions (in short, "putting oneself in the shoes of the other");

[3] An ability to make judgements, with respect to future actions to take, that maximise shared benefit and minimise shared suffering.

Since the papers on the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex and human brain development mediated by ASPM cover the development of the relevant hardware required for this, it should not be surprising to conclude, as a result of observing empirically that rhesus macaques possess the necessary hardware to act in this manner, that our own hardware supporting this behaviour arises from the familiar process of common descent with modification, and indeed, the ASPM papers provide evidence with respect to the modifications that took place in our lineage. (I may cover these papers in more detail at some other point in time).

So, apparently, evolutionary processes equipped us not only with the ability to behave altruistically, particularly toward fellow members of a given social group, but also equipped us with mechanisms for conflict resolution and reconciliation. Interesting, is it not?

But there's more. Two more papers of interest are:

Mechanisms Of Social Reciprocity In Three Primate Species: Symmetrical Relationship Characteristics Or Cognition? by Frans B. M. de Waal and Lesleigh M. Luttrell, Ethology and Sociobiology, 9(2-4): 101-118 (1988)

Reconciliation And Consolation Among Chimpanzees by Frans B. M. de Waal and Angeline van Roosmalen, Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology, 5(1): 55-66 (March 1979)

The first of the above papers opens as follows:

Summary 1. After agonistic interactions among chimpanzees, former opponents often come into non-violent body contact. The present paper gives a quantitative description of such contacts among the chimpanzees of a large semi-free-living colony at the Arnhem Zoo, in order to establish whether these post-conflict contacts are of a specific nature.

2. Our data indicate that former opponents preferentially make body contact with each other rather than with third partners. They tend to contact each other shortly after the conflict and show special behaviour patterns during these first contacts. Data on contacts of the aggressed party with third animals indicate that such contacts are characterized by the same special behaviour patterns as first interopponent contacts. These patterns are: 'kiss', 'embrace', 'hold-out-hand', 'submissive vocalization' and 'touch'.

3. Such interactions apparently serve an important socially homeostatic function and we termed them 'reconciliation' (i.e. contact between former opponents) and 'consolation' (i.e. contact of the aggressed party with a third animal). According to our data, 'kissing' is characteristic of reconciliation and 'embracing' of consolation.

This was a paper that performed a quantitative analysis of the requisite behaviours back in 1979. And which, moreover, contains what appears to be a direct empirical observation of chimpanzees acting socially to mitigate the results of violent conflict, and seek to minimise the occurrences thereof amongst their number. Which once again demonstrates that we are not unique in this vein by any stretch of the imagination.

The second of the above papers opens as follows:

Agonistic intervention behavior was observed in 23 chimpanzees, 50-60 rhesus monkeys, and 25 stumptail monkeys. Reciprocity correlations of interventions were determined while removing the effects of matrilineal kinship, proximity relations, and same-sex combination. It was considered likely that if significant reciprocity persisted, it was based on cognitive mechanisms. All 3 species exhibited significant reciprocity with regard to beneficial interventions, even after controlling for symmetrical traits. Harmful interventions were reciprocal among chimpanzees only. Both macaque species showed significantly inversed reciprocity in harmful interventions. Macaques rarely intervened against higher-ranking group members.

Before moving on to the other papers of interest I can bring here, I'll introduce some pertinent comments. First of all, the only evidence we have, of creatures producing an abstract concept of ethics, and devising conceptual frameworks within an intellectual field of endeavour devoted to these, centres upon humans. We have evidence that humans have written treatises on ethics. We have NO evidence that any other entity has produced treatises on ethics or formulated ethical ideas on an abstract basis, though as will be seen, we have an increasingly large body of evidence for reciprocal behaviour and other behaviours more usually thought of by the naive as unique to humans. Any statement that an invisible magic man is responsible for our ethical constructs is mere blind assertion, not least because the postulate that this invisible magic man even exists is a blind assertion. As a direct consequence, the observational evidence supports the notion that morality is a human invention, which I shall present in more detail shortly.

One of the more interesting developments from neuroscience supernaturalists in particular have apparently missed out on is this. Humans (and indeed other primates) possess a part of the brain known as the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex. It has been demonstrated experimentally, courtesy of cases of brain injury to this region, that this part of the brain is the very part of the brain responsible for our capacity to engage in ethical decision making. When that part of the brain is damaged, ethical decision making is manifestly impaired. In other words, we have an organic and biological basis for our capacity to act as moral beings. An interesting and relevant paper is this one:

Characterisation Of Empathy Deficits Following Prefrontal Brain Damage: The Role Of The Right Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex by S.G. Shamay-Tsoory, R. Tomer B.D. Berger and J. Aharon-Peretz, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15: 324-337 (2003)

Impaired empathic response has been described in patients following brain injury, suggesting that empathy may be a fundamental aspect of the social behavior disturbed by brain damage. However, the neuroanatomical basis of impaired empathy has not been studied in detail. The empathic response of patients with localized lesions in the prefrontal cortex (n = 25) was compared to responses of patients with posterior (n = 17) and healthy control subjects (n = 19). To examine the cognitive processes that underlie the empathic ability, the relationships between empathy scores and the performance on tasks that assess processes of cognitive flexibility, affect recognition, and theory of mind (TOM) were also examined. Patients with prefrontal lesions, particularly when their damage included the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, were significantly impaired in empathy as compared to patients with posterior lesions and healthy controls. However, among patients with posterior lesions, those with damage to the right hemisphere were impaired, whereas those with left posterior lesions displayed empathy levels similar to healthy controls. Seven of nine patients with the most profound empathy deficit had a right ventromedial lesion. A differential pattern regarding the relationships between empathy and cognitive performance was also found: Whereas among patients with dorsolateral prefrontal damage empathy was related to cognitive flexibility but not to TOM and affect recognition, empathy scores in patients with ventromedial lesions were related to TOM but not to cognitive flexibility. Our findings suggest that prefrontal structures play an important part in a network mediating the empathic response and specifically that the right ventromedial cortex has a unique role in integrating cognition and affect to produce the empathic response.

Another apposite paper is this one:

The Role Of The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex In Abstract State-Based Inference During Decision Making In Humans by Alan N. Hampton, Peter Bossaerts and John. P. O'Doherty, The Journal of Neuroscience, 26(32): 8360-8367 (9th August 2006) [full paper downloadable from here]

Many real-life decision-making problems incorporate higher-order structure, involving interdependencies between different stimuli, actions, and subsequent rewards. It is not known whether brain regions implicated in decision making, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), use a stored model of the task structure to guide choice (model-based decision making) or merely learn action or state values without assuming higher-order structure as in standard reinforcement learning. To discriminate between these possibilities, we scanned human subjects with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they performed a simple decision-making task with higher-order structure, probabilistic reversal learning. We found that neural activity in a key decision-making region, the vmPFC, was more consistent with a computational model that exploits higher-order structure than with simple reinforcement learning. These results suggest that brain regions, such as the vmPFC, use an abstract model of task structure to guide behavioral choice, computations that may underlie the human capacity for complex social interactions and abstract strategizing.

Another apposite paper is this one:

Characterisation Of The Decision-Making Deficit Of Patients With Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Lesions by Antione Bechara, Daniel Tranel and Hanna Damasio, Brain, 123: 2189-2202 (2000)

and also this one:

Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activation Is Critical For Preference Judgements by Martin P. Paulus and Lawrence R. Frank, NeuroReport, 14(10): 1311-1315 (28th March 2003)

However, the one I'd really like to concentrate upon from here on is this one:

Impairment Of Social And Moral Behaviour Related To Early Damage In Human Prefrontal Cortex by Steven W. Anderson, Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Daniel Tranel and Antonio R. Damasio, Nature Neuroscience, 2(11): 1032-1037 (November 1999)

Here's what this paper says:

The long-term consequences of early prefrontal cortex lesions occurring before 16 months were investigated in two adults. As is the case when such damage occurs in adulthood, the two early-onset patients had severely impaired social behavior despite normal basic cognitive abilities, and showed insensitivity to future consequences of decisions, defective autonomic responses to punishment contingencies and failure to respond to behavioral interventions. Unlike adult-onset patients, however, the two patients had defective social and moral reasoning, suggesting that the acquisition of complex social conventions and moral rules had been impaired. Thus early-onset prefrontal damage resulted in a syndrome resembling psychopathy.

Indeed, further research in this area has established an interesting fact: if the pre-frontal cortex is damaged in childhood, before a child has begun to learn basic ethical precepts, that child becomes a sociopathic adult, incapable of responding to any impulse other than instant gratification of wants and desires, regardless of the cost to that person or others affected by said behaviour. If the damage occurs in adulthood, the behaviour is still antisocial, but is accompanied by feelings of guilt because ethical precepts have already been learned, and knowledge of this affects the individual adversely in terms of guilt feelings after the fact. Plus, when subjected to testing in a clinical environment, adults with pre-frontal cortex damage can give appropriate responses to questions about appropriate behaviour in social settings, but are unable to act upon this knowledge, and continue to be driven by immediate gratification, even when they know that this behaviour is self-defeating. The pre-frontal cortex has also been implicated as the origin of fear memories in normal individuals, as of 2006 (courtesy of researchers at the University of Toronto). Modern data with respect to this relies upon functional MRI scanning, which can track brain activity in real time, and those brain imaging systems have found a startling correlation between reduced activity, reduced volume and reduced interconnections with other brain subsystems, and individuals falling into the following categories:

[1] Sufferers of unipolar depression;

[2] Persons subjected to repeated high-intensity stress (e.g., battlefield shock cases);

[3] Incarcerated criminals;

[4] Diagnosed sociopaths;

[5] Drug addicts;

[6] Suicide victims (survivors of suicide attempts have been imaged via fMRI: successful suicide victims have had the pre-frontal cortex directly measured by dissection).

Therefore there is a biological basis for ethical behaviour in humans, and work on the great apes is being performed in anticipation of finding corollary brain activity related to socialisation and the establishment of behavioural 'norms' within great ape social groupings, a sample of which I've already covered above.

Additionally, I have since found that pre-frontal cortex damage is implicated in schizophrenia, courtesy of this page from the Society for Neuroscience. Again, it refers to brain imaging studies, this time in humans and other primates.

A letter to Nature is also apposite here (link), viz:

The psychological and neurobiological processes underlying moral judgement have been the focus of many recent empirical studies [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. Of central interest is whether emotions play a causal role in moral judgement, and, in parallel, how emotion-related areas of the brain contribute to moral judgement. Here we show that six patients with focal bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a brain region necessary for the normal generation of emotions and, in particular, social emotions [12, 13, 14], produce an abnormally 'utilitarian' pattern of judgements on moral dilemmas that pit compelling considerations of aggregate welfare against highly emotionally aversive behaviours (for example, having to sacrifice one person's life to save a number of other lives) [7, 8]. In contrast, the VMPC patients' judgements were normal in other classes of moral dilemmas. These findings indicate that, for a selective set of moral dilemmas, the VMPC is critical for normal judgements of right and wrong. The findings support a necessary role for emotion in the generation of those judgements.

Indeed the pre-frontal cortex appears to be involved in a surprising amount of decision making. This page on depression covers this in some detail. This page also reports a study from the British Journal of Psychiatry, which notes structural differences in the pre-frontal cortex that are observed between socially well-adjusted individuals and pathological liars, and a parallel reversal of those differences in persons with autistic spectrum conditions (who have been observed for many years as possessing a considerably reduced capacity to lie and fabricate - there are numerous peer reviewed studies with respect to this, from researchers such as Professor Uta Frith and Dr Simon Baron-Cohen).

A peer reviewed paper that can be accessed that discusses several of these findings in detail is this one, in which the connection between pre-frontal cortex damage and increased pursuit of immediate gratification is experimentally verified. This article from the American Journal of Psychiatry also covers the relation between pre-frontal cortex damage and schizophrenia.

So, looks as if the basis for morality is organic, and has precious little to do with any invisible magic men.

At this point, I'd like to introduce everyone to Endal. Endal is a Labrador Retriever. In other words, a dog. This dog has repeatedly demonstrated not only intelligent behaviour (Endal has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to operate a chip and pin ATM cash machine) but has also engaged in the sort of self-sacrificial behaviour that supernaturalists wish to claim is ONLY possible as a result of whatever magic man they happen to believe in. Now, last time I checked, Labrador Retrievers didn't possess any concept of 'god', nor are they noted for having generated amongst themselves anything resembling a 'religion'. On the other hand, since dogs are social animals that adopt a hierarchical structure amongst themselves, and work co-operatively with the dominant animal in the social group, this behaviour is readily explicable in entirely natural terms.

Likewise, I'd like to introduce everyone to Binti Jua. She can be seen in action here. Binti Jua is a female gorilla living in a zoo. Now, once again, as far as I am aware, gorillas don't have a 'god' concept, and haven't manifested behaviour compatible with the development of a 'religion'. However, Binti Jua rescued a 3 year old human child who had fallen into her enclosure, and carried the boy to safety where zookeepers could collect him and pass him on to waiting ambulancemen. I think it's safe to say that Binti Jua hasn't read any holy books lately, and as a consequence, her behaviour is explicable entirely in naturalistic terms, namely that she is a social primate with a sense of empathy for creatures resembling herself that is the product of an evolutionary process.

We humans are capable of grafting additional abstract ideas onto our empathic actions as a consequence of our genetic inheritance of a large cerebral cortex. We are capable of inventing ideas that seem at first sight to have no parallel among other animals, but that incident cited above is not regarded as exceptional by scientists who work with primates and study their social lives. Moreover, both gorillas and chimpanzees have demonstrated a capacity for communication with humans via language. We share more with those other apes than the glib accounts of old mythologies would have us believe, and that shared heritage is being elucidated on a more and more detailed basis with the passage of time. Indeed, detailed observation of other primates reveals that they too possess that brain structure I cited above - the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex. It is larger in humans, because it underwent the same expansion as the cerebral cortex proper in our particular lineage (for more on this, look up the ASPM and FOXP2 genes), but we share that structure with the great apes. We share many of the genes coding for its formation and wiring. And, we share many of the behaviours that this part of the brain is responsible for. In our case, the greater size and greater connectivity with the cerebral cortex proper makes other, newer behaviours possible, but we are not unique in this respect.

Our entire concept of ethics is, basically, another example of emergent complexity in action - emergent complexity made possible by the biological features described above. We can choose to act in a manner that either harms or helps our fellow humans, depending upon whether we give precedence to short-term or long-term goals. But that capacity does not require any supernatural input for explanation - we are increasingly untangling the biological and neurological basis for our behaviour, for our possession of, if you will, a conscience, and that is tied intimately into our heritage as descendants of gregarious apes.

So, combine this with the scientific papers above I've cited with respect to the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, and I think it's safe to say I've provided plenty of evidence to back up the hypothesis that the products of human thought have an organic basis, and once again, that reference to any invisible magic men is entirely superfluous to requirements.


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