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If you can get away with it, just do it

By Graham Preston - posted Monday, 7 July 2008

On some moral issues, for example the torturing of babies, there is almost complete agreement on what is right and what is wrong, while with other issues, such as abortion, there is strong and often completely irreconcilable disagreement. From where do we derive our notions of right and wrong and how do/should we decide who is correct?

Societies founded on a Christian tradition have largely based their beliefs about right and wrong on what they perceive to be God’s decrees. The thinking has been that God was our creator and, by definition, is all wise and good. God defined and made at least generally clear what is right and what is wrong. Thus there was believed to be an objective basis to an absolute morality.

With the rapid growth of secularism, it is becoming increasingly evident that appeals to God for a moral foundation and direction makes no sense. But if not God, then what?


One possible answer is to assert that moral values just happen to be part of “the furniture” thrown up by an evolving, godless universe. These values are floating around out there and somehow people are able to simply intuit them. What should be made of such an idea?

It would seem to be a rather extraordinary occurrence if lifeless, unconscious matter should have somehow generated in particular units of matter, known as human beings, the sense that certain behaviours are “right” and others “wrong”. (And it does seem that moral notions are largely confined to homo sapiens.) Even if such an unlikely scenario has occurred though, what would it mean?

Let us accept for now that the nature of matter is such that it has happened that humans have a built-in sensor that tells them, for example, that when they experience or hear about lying or rape, they are led to hold a belief that lying and rape are “wrong”. So far so good - perhaps.

But when lying and rape do occur, as they surely do, have the liars and rapists committed some sort of cosmic offence against “the universe”? After all, the physical universe brought them, unintentionally and purposelessly to be sure, but nevertheless brought them into being and generated these moral feelings, so do they therefore wrong the universe? Maybe in some curious way you could say that they do, but you have to be left asking, so what?

It is not as if an unconscious universe can care that the “moral code” that has unintentionally happened into existence is being broken. Equally it cannot penalise anyone in any way for what may be regarded as even the grossest of breaches of its “morality”.

It is also very inconvenient that it has happened that human beings have not evolved to believe that the same things are “right” and “wrong”, as noted above. (Why haven’t they?) Who, then, can say that one person’s evolved belief that abortion is “wrong” is incorrect, while the one who has evolved to believe that it is “right” is right? On what principled basis can such a judgment be made?


No, at best a naturally evolved morality, should it actually exist, is nothing but a toothless, and ultimately useless and meaningless, curiosity.

The other main alternative for finding a basis for morality is to look to human beings themselves. People don’t need a god or nature to tell them what is right and wrong: they can surely rationally create a moral belief system by themselves, for themselves. The pros and cons of different moral positions on various issues can be debated and then a decision made as to which is most suitable.

Easy. Right?

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About the Author

Graham Preston is an illustrator and a student of life.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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