First, I understand the argument that "you don't need heaven or hell to be moral". That's not the question.

Second, this question is about atheists and non-religious people.

You see many of these people doing good things in their lives continuously with no promise of heaven or any self-benefit. Someone might spend their life working on something that may be only useful in the next century without gaining any benefits. Someone might use all their wealth to help others live better lives with no benefit to themselves whatsoever. Someone sacrifices their own lives or limbs for their country without any promise of going to heaven.

So, I understand that you don't need the promise of heaven to do these things. People do them because they look at them as goals (helping others) instead of means to get to their goal (heaven, being closer to their god, etc). I get that. I also think the same way.

The question is, how does this way of thinking construct in someone's mind? And why?

Have you ever thought of this?

I can answer it in evolution terms: We are evolved creatures and our main difference with other creatures is our brains. We are the most (known) intelligent creatures on earth. Our intelligence allowed us to stop living by Darwinian principles and try to change our own course of evolution. This made us aware of other values, besides maximizing the probability of passing on our genes to next generations. Values such as the long term survival of our kind (as opposed to Darwinian evolution's blind force), importance of non-physical concepts such as ideologies, countries, etc. So in terms of evolution, our intelligence allows us to develop values which cannot be explained in the personal benefit->act relationship.

BUT philosophically, how do these thoughts/values construct? Where do they come from? That's the question.

I would really appreciate if you could help.

  • Are you asking "why did humans evolve the moral values that we did"? – Xodarap Oct 31 '12 at 23:51
  • More or less from the philosophical point of view. – Sinead Nov 1 '12 at 0:04
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    Nietzsche might be one place to go for a good understanding of the "real" stakes of this problem -- the Genealogy of Morals in particular sounds like it might answer your questions pretty directly. – Joseph Weissman Nov 1 '12 at 3:33
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    Nietzsche may answer the questions, but I wouldn't expect those answers to be correct. – Rex Kerr Nov 1 '12 at 11:34
  • let us continue this discussion in chat – Joseph Weissman Nov 1 '12 at 16:03

There are a number of recent (by philosophical standards) works by people such as Marc Hauser and Jonathan Haidt on this topic. In brief, morality appears instinctive (and is evident as a sort of proto-morality in some social animals), and rather ad-hoc. (E.g. in an out-of-control car you should swerve to hit only one person instead of two, if you can; but you should not throw one person who would not be hit in front of a car in order to prevent it from hitting and killing two.) As far as I can tell, the source of much (maybe all?) morality is these instincts, and we're then left to rationalize and organize matters as best we can.*

More detail (and an interesting read) can be found in Jon Haidt's recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Unfortunately, I don't think moral philosophy has adequately caught up with recent findings in let's call it moral sociology or moral evolutionary biology, so there's not yet a classic source to turn to to answer your question, on either the "let's abstract away from the detailed moral answers and come to a universal-like understanding of morality based on evolutionary constraints of social animals" or "starting from all these evolutionarily-instilled intuitions, let's build a logically-consistent-as-possible framework for moral behavior and reasoning" fronts.

*Just because the instincts are the source of morality doesn't mean that they dictate morality, just as our instinct to eat doesn't dictate cooking. Nonetheless, ignoring those instincts when discussing morality is probably about as wise as deciding that one can avoid eating because one doesn't like cooking.

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