Framework for Ethics.

So something you will here often from religious people are that with out God or religion we would have no morals.
And the usual counter to that is well ‘x’ is an atheist and he’s not an out of control maniac.

So I’ve not given this any more thought until the other day. When I though well maybe there is something more to this.
If a religious person can point to some framework to say “look that is my framework for morals where is yours?
You don’t have one even if you’re not out raping and plundering your ethics comes down to and ad hoc choice or at the best
your ethics are only guided by what is allowed in the law. So that if a choice you faced that with is not illegal but lets say it was not the
‘most right’ thing to do your action would come down to some ad hoc choice your under no obligation to try and make the ‘right choice’”.

Now I’m not saying religious people are more ethical or anything like that.

What I’m asking are 2 things:
1 Is there some framework we can hold up to say that I live to these principles something more that what the just the law requires.
2 Or should we say that no your only obliged to follow the law and any choice that falls in a grey area you should do what
benefits you or makes you most happy.

I think we (all of us,the religious included) follow what society want. 500 Years ago it was ok to be a racist, to keep slaves, fight duels or whatever. 500 Years from now they might look back at our gun laws as immoral. Sorry, could think of nothing else to use.

Why on earth must an ethical framework be externally derived and/or in any sense “absolute”? Why must humans’ ethical framework be more than what they learn from their parents, peers and society? Why is it so hard for people to comprehend that human morality is largely memetic in nature and is circumstantial? Or that its present form was arrived at by gradually weeding out precepts and practices that weren’t beneficial or had lost their relevance? Or that it has changed and will continue to change as circumstances demand (which is not to say that it doesn’t contain some elements that are likely to remain fixed for as long as people care about one another)?

The answers to your two questions will emerge when the above questions are considered carefully.


The secular ethic is intuitive and easy because it approximately reflects the morality of the times. Doing the right thing usually comes automatically. Ethics derived from religious texts are fixed and inflexible and must first pass through the filters of theology to make it approximately palatable to modern life. Which of course renders them pretty useless as a collection of infallible an eternal rules.


I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of moral relativism. It leaves us at the point where we can’t say anything about how
the Saudi’s treat there woman in society or even the Israel occupation of the west bank. Or the people who let a toddler crawl into
the road to be run over by a truck. If it is all relative then there is no absolute wrong or wright then there is no objective way
at judging anybody’s actions.

I have a problem with the notion that ethics and morals are derived from/by some immaterial, independent (not societal in other words) external agency that prescribes how we should live. I agree with Mefiante that circumstances inter alia determine and that they are not immutable nor written on stone tablets. Indeed when you analyse the commandments you’d find i think that the first 4 are self-serving god centered laws that have nothing whatsoever to do with morality. The more than 100 commandments ultimately contained in the Torah are derived from laws promulgated by the Israelites. In like fashion, the secular Greeks some 500 years BCE had a well developed system of ethics as have many non-religion based societies done over the millennia.

Exactly. So pick your country very carefully.

At the very least you want to live in a place where your moral views and criticisms will be tolerated by whoever owns the army.




Yes I agree and that is not what I’m saying, But rather could we as “society” get to a framework that we could say as absolute wrong and right that we could point to and say these things should never change?

I’m afraid that that simply doesn’t follow. If humans by and large everywhere and at all times agree, for example, that it is desirable to treat others as oneself would like to be treated, then there is little in that tenet that one could convincingly label “relative” (relative to what, exactly? a standard that is imagined to be absolute? how would that answer anything?) — unless you want to start judging the resultant morality from a broader perspective than humanity’s, e.g. from the point of view encompassing all living things, something that would breed a whole new bucket of maggots. If, in addition, one can rationally defend such ethical principles (as is in many cases not only eminently possible but also done), then it becomes even harder to write them off as “relative”.

Nor would such a precept suddenly lack objectivity, especially if it is properly formalised and delineated by way of laws or a Constitution (which again would reflect general agreement). What we do have a problem with is when moral relativism becomes the excuse for various atrocities or misdeeds. It’s telling that one never hears people waxing derisory about “moral relativism” when they happen to agree with the morality of a particular issue. Conversely, the ones who are first in line, loudly denouncing “moral relativism” and claiming guidance from an absolute morality, are usually the same ones whose morality isn’t exactly unimpeachable. Cases in point are religious fundamentalists of various stripes claiming absolute moral authority to condemn gays, oppress women, oppose certain scientific endeavours, and a brace of other interferences.


Jisses I read most of the 613 Mefiante thanx for that; but it seems that many either say the same thing; are open to interpretation; are irrelevant due to shift of times which brings me full circle to Cr1t’s point again when I said that ethics and morality are societal by nature, not immutable and can and do change. The Torah states inter alia

Not to add to the commandments of the Torah, whether in the Written Law or in its interpretation received by tradition (Deut. 13:1) (CCN159)
yet they constantly added to it over the centuries. The Talmud plays this role in the Jewish religion where circumstances lead to interpretation and resolution as to what the Torah actually meant.

In whose opinion/view would such framework be constructed? and at what cost?

This universe doesn’t care whether the women are treated right or not. “Nature” doesn’t care and “God” doesn’t exist. This leaves moral relativism the only place you can be, since there is by definition no absolute starting point for morality. It is advantageous for us to agree, for our own sake alone, to adopt a morality. There is no (or seems to be no) inherent thing in the cosmos that “frowns” upon murder, segregation, racism, slavery, etc. The only moral guides we have are other people and our ‘evolved to cooperate’ genome.

This has given me pause for thought over the years. Things I considered “bad” before I became an atheist quickly melted into non-issues, and sometimes my lax attitude to some things can startle folks around me when I least expect it. These are things like marriage, drug use, prostitution, suicide, abortion, divorce, etc. The only criteria I consider is: “Is this a victimless crime?” and sometimes, such as the case for divorce: “Is the alternative better?”. How do I even define the term “victim”: If some sob is underpaid to work in a sweat shop in china and I buy an apple product unknowingly and 6 months later it is found that this person suffered. Have I just been party to a crime by my definition? And worse: Is the appropriate course of action punishment or correcting the problem? Is it even moral to punish someone?

I came to the stark realization that morality IS relative, in my own life I’ve shifted my viewpoint on morality entirely and those around me still come from a completely different angle than I do. So however much we don’t like to think morality is relative it does appear to be so even in tiny microcosms.

Or the people who let a toddler crawl into the road to be run over by a truck.

If it was an honest mistake? Is it negligent? Was it unforseeable? does the universe give a shit? is it better to forgive than to punish? Is the death of one’s child punishment enough? How fast was the truck driver going anyway? Maybe the car manufacturer should’ve forseen this and fitted external airbags that could’ve saved the child, so by extension they’re guilty too!

Just within one example of a moral dilemma can you find plenty to debate about, and no clear-cut answers are to be found.

If it is all relative then there is no absolute wrong or right then there is no objective way at judging anybody's actions.

That’s how I see it. What was right in ancient Rome was maybe not acceptible in China and moreover tame compared to what was happening in South america. ALL of which may seem barbaric today. Would one have the right to interfere? Should we all stick to the prime directive? All fascinating pondering material.

The problem with God-derived morals is this: how do we know they are right? Against what standard do we weigh them? If we have no such standard, then they are exactly as arbitrary as any other set of morals. And if we do have such a standard then why do we need to get them from God in the first place?

This problem is the same for everyone, whether they believe in gods or not. The religious generally just haven’t given it any thought yet, which is why they think their morals are less arbitrary and on more solid ground than those of atheists.

Yes, that was a part of the point of my previous post: How would we even recognise, let alone verify, an externally-derived, allegedly absolute moral yardstick to begin with? You can’t just say, “Well, we would just automatically know it” without being self-contradictory, and if it is an “absolute” framework it can only be gauged against itself. Either way, the thing’s in some trouble when you ask after its authenticity.

I get a little bit twitchy whenever this claim is made because it betrays a lack of insight into what is being said. Being anthropocentric, humanity’s moral codes are undeniably subjective but they are most certainly not arbitrary. Just think of the evolutionary origins and the development of societal living. Even a superficial consideration thereof should lay bare that certain basic restrictions on individual conduct are indispensable if a society is to remain intact and to continue functioning, and so “anything goes” is a non-starter.


Perhaps we should go ask Kobus de Klerk on LitNet about it… :slight_smile:

I quite agree. What I meant was that it is usually the religious moralist who would argue that any morals not derived from religion are arbitrary, without realizing that his own are exactly as arbitrary as what he accuses the others of being.

But I quite agree that morals are decidedly not arbitrary; we are after all social creatures with a long evolutionary history. Even chimps and baboons and, for that matter, dogs, have morals. Cats tend not to - they are not very social creatures. :slight_smile:

If one considers that, for a religion to come into being, it has to be preceded by a set of morals and based upon those morals, it may well be argued that many of the morals contained in that religion do not have an arbitrary origin, but rather reflect the norms that were prevalent at the time. However, mixing religion into the moral cauldron introduces irrationality and immutability, both of which eventually sours the brew.

It can’t be summarised in a forum post (especially not by a guy drinking a Bloody Mary and watching football), but I can’t recommend Ken Binmore’s Natural Justice highly enough. Game theory (but with minimal, accessible math) and a little evolutionary psychology do a great job of both explaining the evolution of moral standards as well as providing a framework for their future development. I’m constantly amazed at how few people have heard of or read it, even amongst colleagues in philosophy.

Hell, no! If he’s able to turn a debate about hard scientific facts into the compost heap we’ve seen there, just think what he’d do with something that’s not nearly as crisp and well-defined. And, I might start behaving immorally (as judged by his own morality, of course). ::slight_smile:

My bad, it wasn’t a criticism directed at you ’cos I know you don’t think that way. Rather, it was a general comment directed at the claim of moral arbitrariness since it is one that is often heard but rarely challenged.


Also peripherally relevant, in particular re the ethics of blind belief: Socrates Meets Jesus.

While touching on many of the age-old dilemmas surrounding Christian tenets, the dialogue is a good example of the Socratic Method and does a fine job of probing into the ontological difficulties and contradictions inherent in the assumed attributes of the Christian god.