Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Morality Natural?

In a scene from the movie Good Morning Vietnam [I stand corrected; it was the final episode of the TV show M.A.S.H.], a bus full of villagers stops by the roadside to avoid detection by enemy soldiers. Among the villagers are a woman and her crying infant. Fearing the loud crying will alert the soldiers to their presence and lead to their killing, the mother suffocates her child. The ensuing silence assuages the soldiers' concerns and they move on. The villagers on the bus are spared.

What does the decision by this fictional young mother to kill her own child have to say about moral dilemmas? Is the killing morally defensible?

One of the more petulant arguments from many people of religious faith is one which claims that without God there are no morals. Many skeptics, however, make the point that our morality is not only not derived from anything supernatural, but that its origins appear to be encoded in nature itself.

A recent Newsweek magazine article, Is Morality Natural? (Sept. 22, 2008 Issue), reports on studies which "suggest that nature provides a universal moral grammar, designed to generate fast, intuitive and universally held judgments of right and wrong."

When presented with various moral dilemmas, people of diverse backgrounds, including atheists and people of religious faith, remarkably respond in the same way. When asked why they made the decisions they did, most cannot articulate an answer with any conciseness, yet they are confident in their choices. These findings reveal what appears to be a moral intuition embedded into the natural fabric of our consciousness.

One of the main purposes of organized religion most certainly is that of administering what it believes to be this moral charter, an admirable undertaking. It is the origins of this morality that we skeptics doubt derive from a supernatural source. It makes the task of promoting morality by people of faith no less honorable, but this task is not unique to people of faith. We atheists are also keenly attuned to the need for achieving a better sense of right and wrong in our everyday lives. It is a shallow and indefensible myth that atheists, by virtue of their godlessness, are lacking in a moral code to live by.

That this sense of what is right and what is wrong may derive from a natural source - or Darwinian source, as some suggest - actually gives me comfort. It gives one reason to have faith in man's instinctual self.

Maybe we can't all agree on the origins of morality, but hopefully we can agree that whatever they are it is very important to seek out its meaning, seek out its purpose, and attend to its ideal.


  1. The final episode of M.A.S.H was eerily similar and I cried, even as a teenager watching a brilliantly written show.

    I know right from wrong, and no deity can lay claim to that. I know that. And I, like you, believe that it is an innate ability we all possess.

    And were you reading my mind, for that is just about what I am going to blog about. So keep your eyes peeled.

  2. Now that you mentioned it, Red, I wonder if I'm confusing where I remember this scene from. I know M.A.S.H. had a scene just like this, but I could have sworn the Movie Good Morning Vietnam did also. Are you aware of this - or am I just going a little nuts?

    Can wait to see your upcoming post.

  3. I have seen Good Morning Vietnam and truth be told(Sorry Bill) I do not remember that scene.

    But in the finale of the series where Hawkeye is with a psychiatrist, he is uncovering that exact episode. That scene blew me away. It is branded in my memory forever.

    Completely off topic. I am going to ask a HUGE favor. There is a blog I would like you to read. This blog is on my list of blogs I read. Trees are for hugging. Take a gander at it, and as someone(you who can put more than two words together to make a coherent sentence, please tell me if this person has any qualities as a write. And be honest or I will never come to the New England area and visit you.

    See you soon sir!

  4. You bring up some excellent points. Can ethics exist independently of religion? Can one be ethical without God? Most certainly, I think. Sounds like good fodder for a Richard Dawkins lecture.

    In some sense, I believe that religion was set up for people who have more trouble navigating the turbulent waters of morality. As my Mom says, "Religion is for people who need it." They are always repeating things over and over again in church as if repeating things will make them better people. Maybe the answer is that people who have a better ability to reason, naturally are better at reasoning out moral consequences, that some people evolved having morality firmly ingrained and others are always having to be knocked over the head with moral rules. There may be more to intelligence besides pure brains, but also a higher, more superior ability to see morality.

    Just a few thoughts.

    BTW...I'll also have to check out Red's website recommendation---and I also don't recall that scene from Good Morning Vietnam. My favorite quote from MASH is: "Rule Number 1, soldiers die, Rule Number 2, doctors cannot change Rule Number 1."

  5. Apparently the verdict is in: The scene I was thinking about came from M.A.S.H. and not the movie, Good Morning Vietnam. Thanks for setting me straight guys.

    Now is that an original saying from your Mom - "Religion is for people who need it"? I love it. It has the feel of a "truism."