The secular incentive to be moral

According to certain religious rhetoric, without god we would all be killing each other on the streets. There would be no need to be moral, we could just begin randomly stabbing each other because there is no god-sanctioned sanctity of life, right?

Errrm… That’s kinda sorta happening already, much of it interestingly happening over religion. (For those who say that eg. Islam extremists use religion only as an excuse for their real motives of VIOLENCE, no, yeah that’s kinda my point, religion has never been more than an easily manipulated excuse. That’s the real beauty of religion, due to the self contradicting subject to interpretation nature of religion, you can do almost anything in its name and its guaranteed that someone will agree with you.)

But, as the world progresses through time and becomes more civilized as society improves, you’ll find that crime generally decreases (per capita, in developed nations). And this has less to do with preaching than you think.

When I say crime, I mean immorality. And when I say immorality, we have to define morality – basically the further you are from the worst possible suffering for all intelligently conscious beings, because suffering is the root reason for why wrong is wrong. The more well-being people are, the less wrong people are.

Of course, that that begs the inevitable question of why we should even care for other people’s well-being.

That’s the gotcha moment for most apologists. “Without god threatening you with hell (or god’s “supreme authority” however you wanna spin it), what reason do you have to be good?” and I’ll be honest, answers like “don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you” and “because morality is inherent” (its not), just don’t cut it, because they don’t get to the core reason.

And, maybe in the short term (for example when he is really angry), a secular person might not find an immediate reason to not harm someone… except there’s probably a law against that. Now I bring up laws, not because the law itself is a good reason to be moral, but because laws are reflective of the social agreement we all make when we partake in society. “By relying on the combined efforts of this society to reduce your suffering, you agree to not cause suffering onto anyone in this society, and if you don’t, we’ll deprive you of the benefits of society in order to maintain stability and prevent the rest of us from suffering more.”

The main problem with immoral behavior is that it is unsustainable for a society to condone. Suppose you legalized murder, the society just wouldn’t work. In fact, even if you tried to legalize murder, people will just rise up, murder you and re-institute the law against murder. Morality is the glue that holds a society together, the contract that ensures trust and cooperation, and that makes morality important.

So, why would a filthy godless atheist care about any society?

Because as we have proven over the course of history, society is hugely beneficial towards individuals. Even in the living conditions of the African American slaves could arguably be said to be better than the living conditions of a lonely prehistoric caveman. “You mean for getting beaten, raped and worked to exhaustion I could get some resemblance of shelter, a semi-stable source of food, some company and not have my life threatened by literally everything in nature and have a life expectancy of more than 30 years? Sign me up!” is what a caveman who got the worse end of the prehistoric stick might say if he were desperate.

It is only because of society that we have anything to improve our living conditions at all, and it will only be through society that our future becomes even less shitty, so it is only logical that we work together and by extension conform to the social agreements that allow us to work together.

The problem with being a dictatorship is that dictatorships are unsustainable. In addition to the usual political socio-economic reasons, the main reason is that people are perpetual self experience-improvement machines, and they will find a way to overthrow you if they figure out you’re part of their suffering problem – and they will figure it out, suffering cannot feel good no matter how much propaganda you put out, and time and time again people have found that when they work together they can overcome causes of suffering effectively. The Boeing 747 was not the feat of a individual, Albert Einstein’s contribution was not the feat of an individual, the American revolution was not the feat of a individual, no matter how much you despise society, if you are rational then you will admit that being part of society (and therefore conforming to morality) is in your favor.

Over time, this urge for morality manifested in a variety of common emotions such as compassion, and disgust for immorality, guilt etc. so now we kinda do have a biological reason to not be immoral as well – being part of society is so crucial to us that  morality has been embedded into our survival instincts so that in many cases we are physically unable to partake in things we find immoral. (I for example cannot stand the smell of gore, which is part of the reason I chose physics instead of biology for high school classes. And why aren’t some people able to withstand gore? I would wager it is part of our evolutionary morality instincts, in fact I would go so far as to say that any intelligent sentient beings would develop society and morality into their biology once they reach a certain level of complexity.)

Many people can recognize that being moral is self serving in a very tangible way (you don’t need a book to appreciate the benefits of morality). Being moral helps society help you (whatever passes for society, even our aforementioned caveman might benefit from befriending and being moral towards a dog or something), plus being immoral might make you feel bad is the underlying reason most members of  a functioning society decide not to spontaneously murder. If you hurt someone, there’s a decent (and evergrowing as crime fighting tech progresses) chance that you will get hurt back, and you will feel bad for doing so even without being caught. In contrast, cooperating with a society will improve your personal chances of success (aka. less suffering).

The mainstream is currently – as it always has been – trying to change its perceptions of morality to better match reality. Attitudes towards issues like profanity censorship, cannabis legalization, women’s rights, LGBT rights, religion’s influence on civil liberties etc. are being re-examined because people are more and more aware of how little certain traditionally deemed immoral acts actually perpetuate suffering, as well as how much the same traditional values actually cause suffering. We all want morality, we all have a personal stake in the success of morality, most of us know that current suffering + morality = less suffering, and therefore the secular have every incentive to be moral – perhaps more for those who have the correct definition of morality, one that isn’t “god is good and therefore good is god, and therefore everything that happened in the old testament is okay because goddidit”.


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