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.
3 years ago