Click a question below to get an answer
People who believe in an all-powerful god or gods often believe that
they have a simple answer to the question of the source of right and wrong.
Moral values, they say, come from god(s), transmitted through the ‘sacred texts’ and priests of certain religions. They sometimes insist that even the values of non-religious people have been absorbed from the surrounding religions. Even some non-religious people believe this: morality is an area where some people are made to feel indebted to a religious culture that they do not share. Sometimes they are patronized or criticised by religious believers.
Furthermore, many people, including some non-religious people, worry that a general move away from religious faith brings about some kind of moral breakdown in society. They see religion as having a pragmatic value even if it is not true. Humanists, though, believe that moral values are not dependent on religion. To base morality on God and religion is, in fact, a damaging idea in an increasingly secular society. It gives out the false thought that, if religion is lost, ‘anything goes’.
There is an argument that derives from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato – known as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ – which seeks to show that the very nature of morality is independent of god’s commands. In quick summary, it asks ‘Is what is right commanded by god because it is right, or is it right because it is commanded by god?’ and so makes the point that even if god exists, rightness and wrongness are independent of god’s commands.
Humanists believe that moral values have evolved, and continue to evolve, along with human nature and society. That does not mean, though, that all morality is ‘relative’. Values are grounded in human nature, experience and society. Human beings, who have evolved to live in groups, need the kinds of rules which enable us to live together co-operatively and harmoniously. Recent anthropological studies and the work of evolutionary biologists and psychologists have brought home to us how much of our behaviour is universal, including our basic needs and values. Indeed, we did not even need to wait for such theories: after all, most people in most societies recognize the values of fairness, loyalty, honesty and not harming others for the sheer fun of it.
A sense of what is right and wrong is arguably instinctive, at least in part. Our upbringing also usually helps to guide us to see how things typically go better for us if we get on with people. On a practical level, when we are discussing what is right and wrong or what we morally ought to do, we do not usually worry about the source of our moral values. We are concerned with what they are and how to apply them in a given situation. This is where the real work of morality is done – in real life situations rather than abstract commandments.