Atheist Morality and the Logic of Jeffrey Dahmer

Jamie Steele wrote a comment about the morality of atheism, and in it quoted the following statement from serial killer and cannibalist, Jeffrey Dahmer: "If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…" [An interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, Nov. 29, 1994].

Such statements as these from a known killer are very troubling to me and a source for apologists to berate those of us who are atheists. Let me be perfectly frank here. The logic of Dahmer is sound if I grant him two assumptions that I vehemently reject (anyone wishing to quote this sentence of mine must quote it all, not just the first six words).

What are those two assumptions? First, for Dahmer’s argument to work an atheist must assume that the only reasons to refrain from doing evil are because of the supposed eternal horrible consequences he will suffer when he dies because God will hold him accountable for what he does. By this logic if there are no consequences when he dies then there is nothing to keep him from doing evil.

I vehemently deny this assumption. As I’ve argued elsewhere there are plenty of good solid reasons for doing good, being kind, helpful and generous with people, based solely on the consequences in this life, which is all any of us will ever have, Christians included.

Secondly, there are solid reasons based in the psychology of who we are with our survival instinct that leads us all to think being happy and living life in harmony with others demands that we like ourselves first and foremost. A Freudian death wish is simply unhealthy and counter-productive to what makes for human happiness. So for one reason or another Dahmer first hated himself. He didn’t care what would personally happen to him as he pursued his most base desires; desires that are sick indeed and counter-productive to living life in a crime free society, which is what people who desire happiness want.

Beyond these things, Dahmer was a sick man, a deviant, a sociopath. This just proves to me that anyone can use almost anything to justify his or her actions. If he was a Christian he would’ve said, “God told me to do this,” and we have plenty of examples of that kind of rationale, which is also quite logical, given certain assumptions that most reasonable Christians would likewise reject.

46 comments:

goprairie said...

Those who attempt to equate morality and religion are on shaky ground and they should know it. Statistically, a far greater number of crimes are committed by people of a religion who beleive in God. in fact a great number are committed by people BECAUSE they beleive in God. Dahmer did not kill because he was an atheist and lacked a God. He killed because he lacked a social instinct system that the rest of us have that is completely independent of religion and shared to a great deal by dogs and chimpanzees. The instinct to be social and not kill others of our kind or even others of other species except as food has nothing to do with being an atheist or not.

Shygetz said...

Dahmer is currently spending the rest of his life miserable in prison. That, in and of itself, is sufficient to demonstrate that his cost/benefit analysis is sorely lacking.

Jamie Steele said...

Statistically, a far greater number of crimes are committed by people of a religion who beleive in God. in fact a great number are committed by people BECAUSE they beleive in God.

where are your stats for Christianity
-goprairie God has given very clear moral absolutes.
I feel many look to atheism because it OK's immorality.
"Nothing is wrong unless I say it is wrong."


he killed because he lacked a social instinct system:

sounds like you have done research on him. I just quoted the man.

By the way that very social instinct system is listed in the Bible. It is one of the very proofs of a God that is greater than ourselves.
THis is why we are not like monkeys.
"We have a God given conscience-the human faculty that "enables" one to determine between right and wrong in regards to human conduct.

(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Romans 2

AndreLinoge said...

So we are supposed to think badly of Jeffrey Dahmer who killed people, but call the Christian god "good" who torments them forever in hell.

Shygetz said...

where are your stats for Christianity
-goprairie God has given very clear moral absolutes.
I feel many look to atheism because it OK's immorality.
"Nothing is wrong unless I say it is wrong."


March 5, 1997 prison population statistics

Christian prison population--82% (roughly half Catholic, half other)
Atheist prison population--0.2%

US Population in 2001

Christian population--81.1% (roughly a third Catholic)
Atheist/Agnostic/No religion population--15%

These percentages are of respondents only--non-respondents are not counted.

How now, brown jamie?

Jamie Steele said...

shygetz,
I do a lot of prison ministry and I personally work with one of the top ministries in the country and they may say Christian but many do claim it in there.

Plus many come to Christ in prison or Muslim or whatever.

Lookes like Atheist are in the minority big time, wonder why?


I loved this response:
How now, brown jamie?

That is classic.....

and andrelinoge-- you don't have to go to hell forever.

Paul said, "Whosover calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved."
That means you.

Spirula said...

Dahmer is currently spending the rest of his life miserable in prison.

(Not to be picky but I believe you meant that to be in the past tense.)

Spirula said...

Oh, and by all means, let's pass judgment on the merits of atheism and the Theory of Evolution based on the opinions of a sociopathic serial killer as to the motives behind his crimes. Sociopaths are well known for their remorse, veracity, and their ability to accept responsibility for their behavior .

goprairie said...

Not that it is relevant, but is is certainly interesting:
1) Dahmer was likely not truly an atheist as he had materials and plans to build an alter in his apartment before he was arrested.
2) If you are a Christian, you must beleive he is or will be in heaven, as he converted and was batized before he as murdered in prison.

Vinny said...

I feel many look to atheism because it OK's immorality.

I feel that people who choose to engage in immoral behaviour don't need the endorsement of a personal philosophy to to so. In fact, they generally have the capacity to rationalize their own behaviour regardless of the principles they profess, e.g., Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggart.

Jamie Steele said...

In fact, they generally have the capacity to rationalize their own behaviour regardless of the principles they profess, e.g., Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggart.

Vinny, good point.
It still doesn't make the behavior right.

Vinny said...

It still doesn't make the behavior right.

I personally do not consider it any skin off my nose if Swaggart wants to pay women to take off their clothes for him or Haggart wants to have consexual sex with men. I simply note that they were able to resolve the cognitive dissonnance created by their desires without resorting to atheism. However, I would have respected their intellectual integrity more if they had admitted that their theology did not satisfactorily address the issues related to their sexuality.

Jamie Steele said...

Vinny,

Their theology did address the issue, they failed, and undressed.

I wished they would have had more integrity as well.
Good point.

goprairie said...

Jamie Steele says "I feel many look to atheism because it OK's immorality."
Well, then I feel you have studied neither the reasons people convert or deconvert nor the psychology of morality enough to qualify you as a pastor of anything, if your profile does indeed reflect your occupation. What a frightful view for a pastor to hold.
FYI, people come to atheism for a number of reasons, often because the promises of God have failed them or because they find increasingly that the inconsistencies and illogic of the bible and prescibed beliefs are are things they are no longer able to beleive in. I do not know of a single case where a person wanted to be free to be immoral so 'chose' atheism. To suppose such a thing is ludicrous as well as lacking in data. Obviously you have not been a serious student of why people deconvert. There are plenty of books and articles out there, including many stories on this post alone. I am insulted personally by your claim that this might be a motivator to 'choose' atheism, and i may just be insulted that you think it is a 'choice' at all.
Further, atheism does not "OK" immorality. Atheism expects moral behavior, but for other reasons than Christianity. Atheism in fact may be MORE moral because its reasons for morality are more honest.

Patrick said...

What goprarie said and also...

If it turns out that Hindus are more moral than Christians, should we all convert?

This kind of argument only seems to work against religion. If atheists are correct, then we really have no reason to suspect that they would be, on average, more moral. Or at least there is no reason inherent in my lack of belief for atheists to be more moral.

However, it seems to me that it is inherent in Christianity that Christians should be more moral.

Jamie Steele said...

goprarie regarding your comment:
I do not know of a single case where a person wanted to be free to be immoral so 'chose' atheism. To suppose such a thing is ludicrous as well as lacking in data.

I just read some of the many comments on this board such as :I now don't have someone looking over my shoulder telling me what to do...etc...

I based that on many of your fellow atheist comments.

What a frightful view for a pastor to hold. --- thanks for your opinion but I probably will not stop pastoring based on your opinion. But thanks anyway.

You said:
Further, atheism does not "OK" immorality.
define immorality for an atheist and where did it come from. Seems like you are your own moral authority. What do you base morality on. I am talking about right and wrong.

You guys claim "moral relativism" when it fits and then "moral absolutes" when it fits your own worldview, which is fine with me just be honest about it..

Mark Plus said...

Prison ministries just show that christians consider religious indoctrination a form of punishment.

Mark Plus said...

I've never understood why christians place so much weight on murder as a sin. The christian world view teaches that killing a human body doesn't hurt the immaterial person that resides within it; murder just damages a piece of inert matter than the person would jettison at death any way. Materialists, by contrast, have a better case for opposing murder because we don't believe that we get a second shot at existence in another realm.

goprairie said...

Jamie Stelle demands: "define immorality for an atheist and where did it come from. Seems like you are your own moral authority"
If you were genuinely curious, I would be more than happy to answer this. You are here to insult and make accusations and I do not feel it is worth my time to subject my system to your scrutiny when you will only twist and misquote.
Besides, it is the same system shared by any human and you can read about that in psychology and sociology testbooks and brain science books, things you seem to have little background in.
Why don't you instead outline for me your moral system of what is right and wrong and good and evil and tell me where it comes from.

richdurrant said...

Isn't is obvious that people do good things because they want to? Doesn't seem to matter what world view is held by an individual, the act of doing good cross all barriers. That should tell us that it is a sound principle to follow, do good things to others. It's interesting, and now I'm sorry I can't seem to find who said it or where it is, but someone mentioned that we need to first love ourselves, and I agree. The interesting part is how that correlates with something Christ said, love your neighbor as yourself. It seems that this would be a good sound principle to follow. If we could stop comparing notes on who is more immoral and start treating each other with respect, the whole world would change.

The one thing I can't seem to find is the mysterious "real" Christian. I think he is in cahoots with "not me" and "they". So could someone point me to this "real" Christian so I know who he/she is. I find out all the time who the "not a real" Christians are, which seem to be anyone who does something considered wrong by the "real" Christian. I thought a big part of the gospel was correcting mistakes, otherwise know as sin, by repenting of the sin and not doing it anymore. It seems that Christ had room in his heart for many people from and if we are to take his example we should be back at love thy neighbor as thyself.
Maybe this is a shocker but there are more reasons for morality besides following what you learn from a single book, the bible. The fact that someone can determine morality that is the same you find in the bible that you believe comes from God should just make you that more convinced that it is a true principle.

Derek said...

Buddhists are atheists. The belief in an eternal god is counter to all the Buddha taught. I don't have stats, but they appear to be moral members of society. Lay Buddhists believe in a moral code which was not revealed by a deity... only by a mere man. These precepts are:

1. I observe the precept of abstaining from the destruction of life.

2. I observe the precept of abstaining from taking that which is not given.

3. I observe the precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct.

4. I observe the precept of abstaining from falsehood.

5. I observe the precept of abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause carelessness.


The refrain "I observe the precept of abstaining from ..." which begins every precept clearly shows that these are not commandments. They are, indeed, moral codes of conduct that lay Buddhists willingly undertake out of clear understanding and conviction that they are good for both themselves and for society.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Jamie,
"appeal to psychopath" is never a good strategy in a debate.

Not only does participation in a group make sense morally, it guarantees more successful outcomes mathematically, and it is a survival strategy that evolves naturally.

Fear of god is the least of the reasons why "the golden rule" (of which the first recorded version of it that i can find predates christ by 1500 years and comes out of egypt) is a better strategy than self-centeredness.

And if fear of god is your only motivation to do good, stay a christian, I don't want to meet you in a dark alley.

Christopher said...

According to Dahmer's Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Dahmer), he became a born-again Christian while in prison. This leads me to wonder if Dahmer was simply spouting the party line when he made his comments on Dateline.

Patrick said...

Hi Jaime-

I'm the one who said something to the affect of "Now I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder"

I certainly didn't mean to imply that now I feel free to debase myself/cheat/steal/or murder. I simply meant to point out that I'm willing and able to avoid doing those things by myself without having to be told by a supreme authority.

What's more, I didn't indicate that was the reason I call myself an atheist. Just a perk.

Patrick said...

Jamie-

Sorry for misspelling your name.

Jim Holman said...

The problem with atheism and morality is not atheism per se but the worldview out of which atheism often emerges.

Most people I know try to be moral people not because of the threat of punishment in the afterlife. Rather, they act morally because they believe in a number of metaphysical concepts.

These concepts include the idea that certain actions are "right" and "wrong," "good" and "evil." They believe in the existence of "persons," who are free moral agents, who also have "minds" that cannot be reduced to chemical or electrical phenomena. These persons have "rights," "obligations," and "responsibilities."

Our entire moral discourse is infused with such metaphysical concepts.

While atheism per se does not deny these concepts, the materialistic thinking that underlies much of atheism does. For the materialist, actions are not "really right" or "really wrong." Rather, the materialist tends to dismiss these concepts, or reinterpret them in materialistic terms. Thus "right" and "wrong" as seen merely as shorthand terms for how we feel and that these feelings evolved perhaps because they have a kind of survival value.

For example, the author says that As I’ve argued elsewhere there are plenty of good solid reasons for doing good, being kind, helpful and generous with people, based solely on the consequences in this life, which is all any of us will ever have, Christians included.

Thus for the author one should act morally, not because it's "right" or "good," but as a way of escaping from unfortunate consequences were he to act otherwise. Ironically, these unfortunate consequences function as a kind of materialist version of the fundamentalist Christian "hell." The fundamentalist acts morally because he fears torment in the afterlife; the materialist acts morally because he fears torment in this life. But both have the same basic reason for acting morally, and it is essentially a non-moral reason.

Thus the materialist worldview does not make one an immoral person, but it does make one "act morally" for non-moral reasons.

In that sense the materialist worldview tends to overthrow traditional moral thinking -- not because it denies God, but because it denies the metaphysical concepts upon which traditional morality is based.

oli said...

I'm going to have to disagree with goprairie on a point here.
Atheism does not lead to any kind of moral behaviour or moral code. Atheism is strictly a disbelief in gods. Thats it.
Now i'd certainly agree that with deities out the way people tend to moral behaviour and many adopt moral codes from elsewhere such as non-theistic Buddhism (and Derek, not all buddhists are atheists), humanism or my personal choice, transhumanism.
In fact transhumanism is a moral code that some people find deeply disturbing, so to say atheists adopt a moral code depends on what your definition of morality is.
Shame on you Jamie for evoking the "No True Scotsman" defense for prison christians, Its a bad arguement that doesn't deserve to be used. Otherwise we could simply claim Dahmer wasn't a true atheist (what with the alter building and so on). I think it behoves us to take people at their word until we have good evidence that they are lying. Hence Dahmer was an Atheist and then he converted.
On his conversion, Jamie, are you comfortable that Gandhi goes to hell, while Dahmer goes to heaven? Is this moral in your eyes? Do you think this is right? Does Dahmer grovelling for forgiveness on his knees make him more valid for a decent afterlife than an entire life dedicated to freedom, peace and love?
On violence, murder and christianity. It strikes me that liberal christians are unlikely to be more murderous than atheists, but that fundamentalists, with their religious focus on authoritarian punishment, eternal damnation, the rapture, apocalypses and so on, seem far more comfortable with violence ina religious context. Indeed, when you hear freaks like James Dobson talking about "Spare the rod, ruin the child", he isn't talking about lack of discipline, he is talking about actually beating his children. I realise Dobson and his ilk represent an extreme in the faith, but this extreme seems very comfortable with violent rhetoric and themes. I wonder if the stats for violent crimes and fundamentalist christians show any correlation. I have no proof that it is so, but it seems to me that such themes could easily innoculate a person into forceful authoritarianism and from there its only a few steps to slapping the wife, beating the child, etc. Maintaining authority when your only real strength is physical.

Jamie Steele said...

James Dobson talking about "Spare the rod, ruin the child", he isn't talking about lack of discipline, he is talking about actually beating his children.

-Care to back that up with quotes.

"beating children is a strong accusation"

Lee Randolph- "appeal to psychopath" is never a good strategy in a debate.
-point well taken. Lee, by the way great picture..

Also you said:And if fear of god is your only motivation to do good, stay a christian, I don't want to meet you in a dark alley.
"Fear of God is not my motivation for morality. Christ has changed my life and allows me to strive for morality. I don't fear God, I love and worship God."
And for what it is worth , I don't want to meet you in a dark alley either.


Oli- On his conversion, Jamie, are you comfortable that Gandhi goes to hell, while Dahmer goes to heaven? Is this moral in your eyes? Do you think this is right?

Number 1- i hope Dahmer was converted, was he I don't know.
Gandhi- no where in the Christian Bible does it say "if you are good you can make it into heaven."
"All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."
Oli- that means me, you, Gandhi, whoever.
That is why Jesus died to bear our sins and make salvation possible...

But thanks for your comments anyway.

goprairie said...

Jim H says: "The fundamentalist acts morally because he fears torment in the afterlife; the materialist acts morally because he fears torment in this life."
Is it really to avoid the negative that the 'materialist' acts the way he or she does or is it to attain or experience something pleasant? Is the motivation to avoid negative or to seek positive? Does it matter to your analysis?
I do not volunteer at the museum or spend time with my kids or refrain from lying or killing or wasting to avoid social punishment but to be with other people and have pleasant experiences and make the world a nice place for everyone because I want to give back to a system that gives to me. You can talk defintions and use logic all you want, but I call doing things for the sake of others and the sake of the enviroment and for the embetterment of ones self moral. And without a rule based system, it is a little harder to make decisions about what is moral in a particular situation at a praticular time, but it is worth it and I think it is less 'error prone' to make those decisions on an ongoing basis instead of once when a rule is adopted.

BEAJ said...

I did a Youtube video that covers this subject, and with humor I make my point.

Shygetz said...

"When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier."

"Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, 'You must obey me.' "

"Minor pain can...provide excellent motivation for the child... There is a muscle, lying snugly against the base of the neck... When firmly squeezed, it sends little messengers to the brain saying, 'This hurts; avoid recurrence at all costs'."

"Real crying usually lasts two minutes or less, but may continue for five. After that point, the child is merely complaining... I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears."

"When you are defiantly challenged (by your child), win decisively."

The Reverend (ha, ha) Dr. (ok, that's legit) James Dobson.

Have you ever read his child-rearing books? The child development community has, and they are not amused in the least.

My stats showed that the VAST majority of people in prison are professed Christians. Do YOU have any stats to back up the idea that atheists are immoral, as you claimed? Do YOU have any stats to show that most people are atheist when they come into prison? If you'll look at the stats again, you'll see that Catholics are overrepresented. Is the Catholic church really that much more involved in prostelyzation than the Protestant churches? (Hint: the answer is no.) So I guess that in-prison conversion isn't THAT big a confounding factor.

Hey, check this quote out:

"Out of convicted rapists, 57% admitted to reading
pornography. 95% admitted to reading the Bible."

Hmmm...sounds like this requires blue laws to protect the public.

zilch said...

shygetz- I don't know about yours, but my Bible is black, not blue.

jamie- I am another atheist who didn't convert so I could carouse and swear: I grew up agnostic, did quite a bit of searching, and ended up convinced that God is a human invention.

As far as my morals go, I don't think I'm a bad person. I don't rob banks, I love my kids, I contribute to charities, I've done lots of work with handicapped people, and I don't swear very much.

If you ever come to Vienna, or are in the SF Bay Area this summer, drop me a line, and we can chew the fat over a beverage of your choice.

goprairie said...

Pastor Steele says: "You guys claim "moral relativism" when it fits and then "moral absolutes" when it fits your own worldview, which is fine with me just be honest about it.."
People have diverse views of this and people are generally quoting their own personal opinions on it, which are as varied as your christian denominations and their individuals' interpretations of them.
Studies have been done within societies and accross societies. Certain moral values seem to be innate, instinctive, and others seem to be societal, or societal variences on the instinctive. Even in science, depending on how the study is structured, and who the subject group is, the answers vary. There are several categories of morals, and some are considered more absolute than others and some are considered to be totally the product of the society, and it is a continuum. For example, killing another person is pretty universally accepted as one of the things most immoral, but everyone can come up with a disaster scenaria where that might be justified. We may have encountered that or come close to it in Katrina, where the choice might have been to euthanize terminal patients in order to allow for the rescue others. Would you allow all patients to die for the sake of not being able to move the terminal patients out, if the staff had to leave with the rescued patients, would you abandon the others or help then die gently? You can probably come up with a situation where killing a person could be considered more compassionate. Treatment of a flag is on the other end of the spectrum - there is nothing inherently immoral about treatment of that particular peice of cloth, but the society makes up rules and declares it to be a terrible travesty.
Again, this stuff is all out there to read about and it is in books and in magazines and on the internet. Brain science. Read about it. It might make you more open minded and clear up some of your errors in thinking what you do about atheists and who is more moral than whom.

Don said...

My concept of God is not that of the Bible. I've always tried to follow a code of conduct that I learned when I was a younger man: "Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, curteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent".

I also know that many people, including myself, avoid immoral behavior because of it's *earthly* consequences. Prison. Exile. DUI. Angry spouses. Revenge.

Jamie Steele said...

zilch,
Thanks for the invite and would love to see Austria someday.
You seem like a very good person, as do most on this board and I hope you have a blessed day.

Some comments on other sites lead me to make some of the comments I have made.
Just as some Christians can make other Christians look bad, it can work with Atheists as well.
This board is way more intellectual and mature than some other boards i have been on.

Jim Holman said...

goprairie writes: Is it really to avoid the negative that the 'materialist' acts the way he or she does or is it to attain or experience something pleasant? Is the motivation to avoid negative or to seek positive? Does it matter to your analysis?

Yes, the reason could also be to have a positive experience. But even that is not a "moral" reason for doing something, at least not in the Kantian sense.

There are all sorts of reasons why someone might act in accordance with morality: to feel good, to avoid bad consequences, because he is being bribed, because someone is holding a gun to his head, or whatever. These are all reasons for acting morally, but they are not "moral" reasons per se, and thus the act is not really a "moral" act.

For example, I see that you are drowning, and I rescue you because I hope you will give me some money. That's not really a moral act, because the motivation is all wrong. And that is what I see as wrong with materialism and morality -- the motivation ends up being wrong, in the sense that the person is not really acting morally, though perhaps consistent with morality.

goprairie: I do not volunteer at the museum or spend time with my kids or refrain from lying or killing or wasting to avoid social punishment but to be with other people and have pleasant experiences and make the world a nice place for everyone because I want to give back to a system that gives to me.

I sense that mixed in there is a real moral motivation: you want to "give back." In other words, you feel an obligation to reciprocate, not because of any expected payback but out of a sense of gratitude.

goprairie: You can talk defintions and use logic all you want, but I call doing things for the sake of others and the sake of the enviroment and for the embetterment of ones self moral.

I don't have a problem with that. The key here is how the person views moral actions. The strong materialist tends to view such actions in a materialistic manner -- that the person is merely having "moral feelings," or that the person is playing out some kind of evolutionary survival mechanism. I don't have any sense that this is what you are saying. Rather, you care for people and the environment, and thus you perceive that you have an obligation to help out.

goprairie: And without a rule based system, it is a little harder to make decisions about what is moral in a particular situation at a praticular time, but it is worth it and I think it is less 'error prone' to make those decisions on an ongoing basis instead of once when a rule is adopted.

Personally I am a "situational relativist." By that I mean that moral decisions have to be done in the context of looking at all the relevant factors. Moral decisions are often made as a result of trying to balance two or more moral considerations. We try to make the best decision we can, but yes, there can be difficult moral dilemmas, and the moral path can sometimes be difficult to discern.

goprairie said...

Jim: I feel like you are splitting hairs on the definition of moral and maybe it is because I have not studied the specific fields of philosphy you have and am missiing something. But it seems to me that current brain science points to a couple things:
First, instinct is the reason we do most of what we do. We have an instinct to mate, care for young, find food, make shelter, socialize with others, care for our surroundings, defend ourselves and our family and our things and our terriroty and our group. Those instincts however grouped and named and categorized are what drive us to do what we do and they evolved because they are a set that resulted in a relatively high number of our offspring being successfully raised to maturity.
Second, we mostly make 'gut' decisisons and then rationalize reasons for them afterwards. The gut decisions are what we feel we 'want' to do and that is what we do unless there is compelling reason not to. Only if there is conflict between two 'gut' choices do we start to actively choose. But by and large, we do what we 'want'. I spend time with my kids because I enjoy their company and 'want' them to grow up to value doing certain things because I 'like' those things and 'value' those things. I do not decide if those things will provide me or them with material reward or will avoid me or them harm or punishment. I volunteer because I 'love' the prairie, the grasses and the flowers and the sounds and the living things out there and I 'enjoy' the company of the other volunteers and the interactions with the public. I am not making active decisions based on rewards or punishments but on how it 'feels': Good. So is it all immoral or ammoral to you? Because I enjoy it and get a kick out of it? The hardest day of work is rewarding to me. Rescuing you from drowning even if no one was looking would make me feel competent and strong and capable after wards and that would be my reward to myself, so that would not be purely moral by your definition?

Jim Holman said...

goprairie writes: Rescuing you from drowning even if no one was looking would make me feel competent and strong and capable after wards and that would be my reward to myself, so that would not be purely moral by your definition?

Let me ask you a simple question: what if rescuing me didn't make you feel that way? Would you let me drown?

If so, then I don't see how your decision to rescue me would be a "moral" decision. Instead, it would be an action perhaps consistent with morality, but based on calculated self-interest. Again the question: what if there isn't anything "in it" for you?

goprairie said...

I am asking you to define your morality. You are the one who makes such fine distinctions. I think it is moral even if I do a 'good' thing for purely selfish reasons, but you seem to take morality away from me if I benefit from it.
Do you live near a zoo that has gorillas or chimpanzees or orangatans in a sizeable number? Go watch them and how they interact with each other and care for their young and share food and help each other get comfortable and play with each other and steal food or bedding from each other. Stay for a couple hours and watch and see how they do behaviors very similar to ours that cannot be beneficial to just the individual. They are not capable of the same reasoning about cost and benefit that we are, yet if you fell into the water pond in their cage and were struggling, they would probably drag you out and haul you to the door for a keeper to come for instead of killing you. I cannot define morality with the precision that you do after such sort of observations of the animal world.

Lee Randolph said...

right goprairie,
there is definitely a biological algorithm that spans species where altruism is concerned. there was a surprising video that can be found on youtube of a bunch of water buffalo stampeding a couple of lions that were attacking a small water buffalo. The prediction was that the herd would scatter, not fight back.

in my view, 'morality' is a word to describe a human ideal, that depends on the perspective of the observer.

Jim Holman said...

goprairie writes: I am asking you to define your morality. You are the one who makes such fine distinctions. I think it is moral even if I do a 'good' thing for purely selfish reasons, but you seem to take morality away from me if I benefit from it.

I think we may be talking past each other. I mean, if you were drowning, it would be right for me to rescue you, and wrong to push you further under the water so as to kill you. Correct? Even if I rescued you mostly because I wanted to be thought a hero, rescuing you would still be a good thing.

The original point I wanted to make is that in a strongly materialist worldview metaphysical concepts such as "right," "wrong," and "good" either don't mean anything, or they are reinterpreted in a non-moral manner.

For example, if you and I are not really "persons," but just sacks of chemical and electrical interactions walking around, then it doesn't make any sense to say that I have obligations to do or not do certain things toward you. In this view we are really just complex machines, not persons.

Or the materialist reinterprets moral term in a non-moral way. For the strong materialist "right" really means perhaps that the action has "survival value" from the point of evolution.

So my original point was that the problem with atheism isn't atheism per se, but rather the materialism that underlies much of atheist belief -- materialism that significantly undermines traditional thinking about morality.

The irony is that many materialists criticize Christianity using the language of traditional morality (e.g., the Christian god is "evil") even as their own thinking denies the concepts that are part of traditional morality.

oli said...

This has turned intoa fascinating discussion on the idea of morality.

Quick aside, thank you Shygetz for posting those Dobson quotes, Dare to Discipline and his other books are exactly what i was talking about. This massive authoritarian mindset where a child must obey from fear of consequence, rather than through respect and love. Dobson creates and maintains his authority over his children by fear and his superior strength. This creates an adult conditioned to obey authority figures. You only have to look at Dobsons childhood to see that this is an inherited behaviour and simply creates more authoritarians who equate love and violence, a deeply unhealthy mindset.

As for some of th discussion on what morality is, i hear often from christians that humans are elevated above animals by our minds and our morality, seeing in animals a "dog eat dog" world. This ignores behaviour amongst animals that we can see direct parrallels in humans. Chimps for instance care for the young of the group communally, Dogs are deeply loyal to those they befriend even to the point of physically protecting their friends, hunting animals co-operate to bring down larger prey.

These things evolve with the creatures because working together enables them to get greater results than working seperately.

In humans, this is little different. Humans (or more accurately our ancient ancestors, such as homo erectus, etc) that work together lived longer and had better health than those that didn't. thus they had mor children and eventually dominated the gene pool. Most of our morality evolves from this social nature.
Don't kill - weakens the group
don't lie - impedes successful communication weakening the groups efforts
don't steal - stealing anothers food weakens them making them less useful to the group
and so on and so forth.

The point is that most of our morality, is related to group behaviour and particularly to making groups work better. Religion served in its earliest incarnations as both a means to explain the world and also as a way to promote better group work. The priest kings of sumeria and babylon used the authority of a higher "pack leader" to get their citizens to follow rules of community cohesion. This in turn allowed bigger settlements, settled agriculture and such like. Its also why the big powerhouse civilizations of early human history were all religious based.

But we've moved beyond needing these crutches. We can identify the things that make group dynamics work best and use these to base our morality on.

Jim Holman said...

oli writes: Chimps for instance care for the young of the group communally . . .

A friend wrote his master's thesis in anthropology on the personhood of chimps. There are many other criteria showing that chimps have a significant degree of personhood.

oli: The point is that most of our morality, is related to group behaviour and particularly to making groups work better.

Moral values tend to correlate with that, but it doesn't mean that moral values can be reduced to that.

In other words, when considering the rightness of an action, we don't just use a simple calculus of whether the action benefits "the group." We consider a large number of factors including rights, obligations, good, evil, and so on.

For example -- let's say that a large group would be very entertained and unified by watching you being tortured, and after you were tortured the group would work better together. Would that be moral? Certainly not.

This is the type of problem that develops when morality is stripped of its metaphysical and spiritual content, and is reduced to litle more than a biological principle.

goprairie said...

"let's say that a large group would be very entertained and unified by watching you being tortured,"
Aztec and Mayan human sacrifice. Gladiators. World Wrestling Federation? Inquisition? Teenage video games provide virtual practice.

Kevin said...

Dahmer was simply saying what he thought people wanted to hear. There is no way to determine if in fact he was an atheist and did not believe in the existance of god.

For me, a person that believes in a god is no more moral that someone that does not. I learned that the hard way. For a society to function and for it's inhabitants to be content we have to renounce those base instincts. i.e. we cannot go around doing whatever the hell we want.

If Dahmer wanted to use his lack of belief in a god as a crutch to justify his reprehensible actions then that is his decision. However, do not paint all atheists with that same brush.

We do not all act in this manner. Furthermore, think of all the "upstanding", "moral" Christians that kill in the name of god. they are no more right in their actions than Dahmer

Shygetz said...

Jim, you are committing the "is-ought" fallacy by proxy. Just because materialists do not believe that Platonic standards for morality exists does NOT mean that we believe people should not behave morally. In other words, just because good as a stand-alone entity IS not does not mean that we OUGHT not strive to be good.

The lack of a Platonic standard for good (be it God or something else) would have one important observable difference from the presence of an observable Platonic standard for good. Were good to exist as an observable Platonic ideal, all people would agree as to what "good" was. Were good NOT to exist as an observable Platonic ideal, all people would NOT agree as to what "good" was. As a praticing empiricist, the evidence is towards the latter--people have widely varying opinions as to what is "good". Is slavery good? Forced marriage? Oppression of minorities? Depends on who you ask.

In other words, when considering the rightness of an action, we don't just use a simple calculus of whether the action benefits "the group." We consider a large number of factors including rights, obligations, good, evil, and so on.

You are assuming that the existence and enforcement of these rights, oblications, etc. don't factor into the calculus of utilitarian benefit. Many ethical philosophers and laymen would strongly disagree (including myself).

For example -- let's say that a large group would be very entertained and unified by watching you being tortured, and after you were tortured the group would work better together. Would that be moral? Certainly not.

And part of the reason why not is because society as a whole (or a large segment of it) would be placed under threat of torture, decreasing their security and happiness. Additionally, you cannot insert magic into your equation--how would torturing me make them work better together? Is it because I have planted a nuclear weapon set to go off in 24 hours, and the information they hope to gather by torturing me would help them work together to diffuse it? In that case, society has determined that this case is not quite as clear-cut as it seems.

Finally, you are inserting your own moral judgement here (which is valid and fine--everyone must make their own moral judgement) and assuming it to be representative of a universal morality (which is unjustified). As was previously pointed out, it has in many times and places been considered moral to torture and kill people (usually members of an underclass or an enemy faction) for entertainment and morale purposes. Without resorting to items not in evidence (Platonic ideals for morality) or invalid arguments from consequences, can you demonstrate that your morality is the universal standard?

There are some standards that are near-universal. When we look at these (parent-child incest taboos is probably the biggest one, unjustified homicide taboo perhaps another) we invariably see an injunction with serious and easily-identified social and biological consequences. The farther we get from universality, the more removed we get from social/biological imperatives. Does this correlation suggest nothing to you?

Now I am sure that I will get the common rejoinder--"If you say morality is relative, how can you say (insert reprehensible act) is wrong?" As I said, every person must make their own moral judgements; I am bound to say something is wrong when it violates my own moral sense. What you are really asking (or should be) is "How can you censor someone for violating your moral code?" Usually, the answer is: I can't. I can only do it if I have the consent and cooperation of my society. I don't jail murderers even though I think what they did is wrong; my society jails murderers with my consent and cooperation. If my society claimed that murder was ok, then my only resort would be vigilanteism.

The idea of the person evil in his own mind exists only in comic books. A bare handfull of people will claim to be evil, but they are claiming to be evil by the standards of their society; by their own standards, their actions are justified (even if only by a mental illness). Do you really think, say, the Sept. 11 hijackers thought what they were doing was evil? No; yet you claim that there exists some Platonic ideal of morality that they violated. They obviously could not see it, and their senses are as keen as yours. I say it's evil, and that is sufficient to motivate my actions against it.