How do you define and determine morality?

7OBThe issue of where we get our morals from is one that comes up often in my conversations with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. According to them, morality can only come from God by following his laws, therefore non-believers are incapable of morality. I would like to challenge this idea.

Morality is defined as: “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” It is also defined as “A particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.”
So how do we figure out what’s right and wrong? Here’s a question to start with: Is it wrong to kill another human being?

Christians and non-Christians alike would probably say the same thing: It depends. Is it in self defense? Is it in wartime? Is it the execution of a violent criminal? Both groups generally agree on one thing: Whether or not killing is right or wrong generally depends on the circumstances, and applying the same punishment to everyone without knowing the circumstances would be unjust. Most people would agree that it’s not wrong for me to kill someone who is actively trying to kill me, because that’s self defense. Most people would also agree that a mugger killing his victim is morally unacceptable.
It’s impossible to say that killing another human being is always wrong, because sometimes it’s not. It’s relative to the situation- hence morality is relative.
When we try to apply the same moral answer to every situation, we end up with an unjust system. That’s why we cringe when we hear about starving children being brutally punished for stealing food; sure they did something wrong, but we also take their age and desperation into account. This is also why atheists are horrified at the idea of Hell, because the same brutal punishment is unjustly applied to everyone- good people who simply believed incorrectly are burned right alongside child molesters and genocidal dictators.
So how do we determine whether or not killing another human being is acceptable? Sometimes there is no clear answer, but here are some basic questions to ask.

  1. Are my motives selfish? Am I killing this person for my own personal gain?
  2. Is killing this person necessary? Is there another way to remedy the situation?
  3. What will happen if I don’t kill this person? Will they harm or kill me or someone else?
  4. If everyone killed people for the same reasons I am killing this person, what would our society look like?

Combining these types of questions with general moral principle such as:
Empathy: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” That means I am able to understand the pain and hurt that my actions will have on another human being. Empathy is what causes me to not desire to harm another person.
Social perspective: Humans are social animals, and we’ve learned that some societies are better to live in than others.

We’ve become smart enough to figure out that societies that condone senseless violence are not as pleasant to live in. We also understand the concept of individual rights as it applies to a functioning society. That means that taking someone else’s life intrudes upon their right to live, just as someone taking my life intrudes upon my right to live. I am capable of understanding that since I would not want someone to take my life away from me, I should not take the life of another person. In Christianity this is called the Golden Rule, but it is a concept found in every religion and outside of religion as well.
Of course, we rarely have to sit down and sift through these questions and concepts every time we are faced with a moral dilemma. Most of the time these thought processes happen very quickly and even subconsciously. This is where our conscience comes from- our subconscious understanding of these concepts which we have evolved to understand.
As you can see, we are more than capable of determining what is right or wrong without the Bible’s guidance. But if you’re still not convinced, my other blog goes into more detail.