'Atheist morality'

How would you respond to someone who said that morality comes from an intrinsic altruism that we, as evolved primates, have towards other members of our species? That it is not a uniquely human trait, and is seen in every species that has complex social order, especially in those who exist in groups/flocks etc.?

Well, even if you are a believer, there is no question that our human existences need to have physical and biological substrate, a vehicle of expression. Our mammalian natures are the basis on which our more uniquely human traits emerge.

One example that comes to mind is self-sacrifice in the animal kingdom – a mother bear risking her life to protect her cubs.

Is a mammalian nature closer to the nature of the divine than a reptilian or insect nature? Probably – for one thing, mammals nurture their young. That may not be quite the same thing as love, but it tends in that direction.

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem makes the point (see video here) that animal cooperation, including altruism, is limited towards a small subset of the other members of their community, whereas humans have the ability to feel a moral obligation to those we’ve never even met.

I would say there is nothing about that view that can effectively argue against the existence of God.

Even St. Paul states that non-believers cannot escape from making moral decisions because of the fact that we are all created by the same God who programmed us to naturally act in just ways:

For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts.–Romans 2:14, 15.

In light of this text I see “naturally occurring moral behavior” as proof that our loving God put it there. It does not take “divine revelation” to have morals or feel subject to them. It thus isn’t a surprise that animals tend to reflect this as well.

I would, generally, agree.

Humans, like all of creation, are subject to the natural law. Morality is simply living according to one’s nature. Humans, by nature, are rational and compassionate beings.

Compassion is not limited to humans, explaining the “intrinsic altruism” observed in other animals.

However, as rational beings, we humans understand our purpose to be compassionate beings. We are therefore bound act according to our nature, thus living “morally”. Animals do not have the same understanding, and are thus not held accountable for “moral” behavior.

I think that altruism requires deliberate intent and a subversion of natural selfishness. Altruism is characterized by benevolence toward another, even at the expense of one’s own personal safety, financial gain, or happiness. I don’t see this evident among the animal population, and I would doubt that the animal is capable of such cognitive processing. I think what the atheist (or whoever made this argument) refers to as “altruism” is simply survival instinct, which is not the same thing. I’d like to know what the examples were – do you know?

I would also question whether animals exhibit altruism toward other members of their species. They may practice beneficial activities among their kin and in-groups, which is really an indirect survival mechanism, but are very much unconcerned with and often opposed to out-groups. A male gorilla will attack another male from a different troop, regardless of the fact that they are of the same species, in order to preserve his mating rights. Wolf packs will either try to avoid, or fight off other wolf packs. Members of a flock - though a greater extension of family/kin – are still in-groups.

In this way, I do see a similarity to humans. Many anthropologists and geneticists will concede that people also recognize and practice in-group / out-group association and reproductive strategies.

On the other hand, selfless altruism applied to out-groups is a unique practice specific to humans, as far as I know, and though I couldn’t say with certainty that it *originated *with Christianity, I would say that Christianity has been at the forefront of introducing and advancing this concept as a rule. Whether or not current methods of advancing altruism have been positive or negative is up for debate.

I would agree that people have a sense of altruism towards others just as many animals do. To me, the bigger question is, “And so what?”

We routinely follow or disregard our impulses to achieve our goals or serve ourselves in some way. When I’m tired, I have the instinct to go to sleep, and I do so because I know that sleep is necessary and I’ll feel better, etc. But if I’m working on a project, I ignore the impulse to sleep in order to serve some purpose of my own.

Yes, people usually have an impulse to be kind and help others. The real question is why anyone would obey that instinct knowing full well that to do so would not serve him or her personally. We have no problem ignoring other impulses if we don’t feel they’re beneficial to us. So why not ignore the impulse to “be a good person”? Of course, there are often negative consequences for socially unacceptable behavior, and so complying with the social code might be self-serving in those instances. But surely everyone has encountered a situation in which doing the right thing generated only negative consequences for himself or herself and yet did it anyway because it was “right”.

Of course, the atheists I know are very moral people as a general rule. I know that they are moral; I just don’t understand why they are moral. I don’t understand why the impulse to be good should be any different from the impulse to speak your mind or to relieve yourself - a valid instinct to be indulged when and only when it makes sense for the furthering of your own goals.

Some would say that we should act morally “for the greater good of society” or “to build a better world for our children”. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it, what is “society” or “the world” or even “our children” except other ways to say “other people”? Then we’ve come to the conclusion that one ought to be unselfish for the good of other people. And this is another way of saying, “one ought to be unselfish because one ought to be unselfish”.

Animals might not have the brainpower to think through their instincts and decide whether or not to follow them. But humans do, and humans routinely use this ability. So why don’t we all apply this ability to our impulse to be good and then only be good when it serves us personally?

I’m not certain, to be completely honest, how my Catholic worldview resolves this problem. But I’m far less confident in the ability of a materialistic worldview to resolve it. :shrug:

I would argue that the large percentage of human societies and cultures throughout history where altruism is truncated or limited to one’s own kin disproves this argument. It would be hard to claim that the Aztec, Nazi, Soviet, Ik, or Canaanite cultures (to name but a few) displayed an intrinsic altruism or an inherent morality.

All good things come from God. Even an atheist’s good qualities and moral character are a gift from God.

The Atheist doesn’t recognize this, by definition, but it is truth.

It was a social obligation not to be altruistic; the same would seem to have applied in ancient Israel, vis-a-vis the Samaritans or non-Jews generally. Humans are clannish and a lot of our clannishness ironically comes from our sense of morality – for example, the presumed immorality of falling in love and marrying outside one’s religion, or outside of one’s culture.

But this is speaking of the values of an entire society. When it comes to individuals, it is different. For example, an individual in a Soviet society could “break the rules” by having compassion on those, that he is not supposed to have compassion for. He could be moved to pity by their suffering. Thus, the society is not actively promoting compassion for socially disfavored groups, but this human capacity to feel altruism still breaks through.

Likewise, in a racist society, children would have to be chided and socially conditioned; at a tender age, they “do not know any better” than to relate to the socially disfavored racial group as ordinary people.

Someone like Buddha didn’t invent compassion, he merely encouraged it instead of suppressed it. Thus, I think it would be extreme to say that no human being ever had a genuinely altruistic impulse, prior to the appearance of Buddha or Jesus. At most, it would be untapped potential that was rarely actualized.

p.s. humanism existed among the Greeks and the Romans. In the Iliad, Homer is capable of viewing the Trojans compassionately; he portrays their own griefs, their own love of their children; their own perspective, ultimately. He doesn’t demonize the enemy.

The Roman writer Terrence, writing before the birth of Christ, stated “I am a human being;I consider nothing that is human is alien to me.” It’s reported that, when these lines were first spoken on the stage, the audience applauded.

from wikipedia:

Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto." St. Augustine says, that at the delivery of this sentiment, the theater resounded with applause; and deservedly, indeed, for it is replete with the very essence of benevolence and disregard of self. Cicero quotes the passage in his work De Officiis, B. i., c. 9. The remarks of Sir Richard Steele [1672-71729] upon this passage, in The Spectator, No. 502 [1712][1], are worthy to be transcribed at length. "The Play was “The Self-Tormentor”. It is from the beginning to the end a perfect picture of human life, but I did not observe in the whole one passage that could raise a laugh. How well-disposed must that people be, who could be entertained with satisfaction by so sober and polite mirth! In the first Scene of the Comedy, when one of the old men accuses the other of impertinence for interposing in his affairs, he answers, ‘I am a man, and can not help feeling any sorrow that can arrive at man.’ It is said this sentence was received with an universal applause. There can not be a greater argument of the general good understanding of a people, than their sudden consent to give their approbation of a sentiment which has no emotion in it . If it were spoken with ever so great skill in the actor, the manner of uttering that sentence could have nothing in it which could strike any but people of the greatest humanity—nay, people elegant and skillful in observation upon it. It is possible that he may have laid his hand on his heart, and with a winning insinuation in his countenance, expressed to his neighbor that he was a man who made his case his own; yet I will engage, a player in Covent Garden might hit such an attitude a thousand times before he would have been regarded."–The Comedies of Terence(Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006), page 290.

Confucius comes to mind.

Well, do you notice the sleight of hand? the atheist is saying that man is naturally drawn towards goodness. That is a lie right out of Hell. It’s true that animals and insects have some degree of moral order, but there is also chaos; chaos that, for a human, would be totally unacceptable. Pigs are known to eat their own babies from time to time and several kinds of insects devour their mates after mating with it.

A grown man flinging his own poop at other people would naturally disgust us, but if we saw a chimpanzee at the zoo flinging its poop at another chimp, we wouldn’t give it a second thought. Why is that? because humans are held to a higher moral standard and even the most hardened atheist knows this. We know in our hearts that we are more morally developed than chimpanzees and pigs, that is why we would be disgusted with a man flinging or eating his own poop.

Humans are of a higher moral standard because God created us that way. We have an obligation to aspire to something greater than merely what feels good.

I’d say…that makes very good sense and I’d agree with them.

That explanation might explain the existence of certain moral claims that people make. But it does not decide, one way or another, whether those claims are actually true.

(As other posters have said, there is nothing atheistic about the notion that evolution accounts for our moral views. God could have made it this way.) :shrug:

For an atheist, acting moral is possible. But when we look at atheism followed to its logical conclusion, there’s really nothing that obligates them to act morally. An atheist may be motivated by a fear of getting caught and punished by the police. But criminals don’t always get caught. An atheist might be worried about how he will feel, but people tend to become desensitized when they commit evil enough times. They might be worried about what other people think would think if they knew about an evil deed, but others would only know if they got caught. And even if those people found out, according to atheism, those people will all cease to exist one day. And when they die, an atheist believes that they no longer exist and that there’s no final judgement, no God who sees whatever evil they did that they never were caught for doing. So there’s nothing solid, absolute, and binding that obligates an atheist to act morally.

Atheistic morality could come from supposed “intrinsic altruism”. I would call such descriptions anthropomorphizing, and additionally, I would not expect any animal to wish the well-being of its enemies.

So…you do good because there is a final judgement? If not, you have no argument. If so, how do you know if you’d do good if there wasn’t?

You didn’t include reciprocal altruism here. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reciprocal_altruism

I’d agree with SJH331.

Let’s concede that morality is an intrinsic form of altruism.

And so? Why should we follow it?

The only reason to follow morality, or this “intrinsic altruism” is that “altruism” is good. But the only way to see that altruism is good - or morality in general - is to argue from outside of ourselves, to objective principles.

After all, the desire for revenge, hatred or rape are just as intrinsic. Why follow one form of morality and not the other?

(The argument then tends to go: “Because altruism is socially beneficial” or the pragmatic “It works and helps society flourish”, but even then you are assuming that these things are objectively good. Why is flourishing and beneficence better than war and oppression? Again, you need to argue outside to reach this.)

The person is in some ways correct. As stated, that view is to some degree compatible with Catholicism.

For those wanting to demonstrate the paradoxical nature of “atheistic morality” as a philosophical concept, ask the following question: “What is wrong about my shooting you in the face right now?” Keep asking “Why is that wrong?” Voila.

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