Where do we get our morals? By Simon Nightingale of Shropshire Humanists

On 15 January 2019, the main lecture theatre at the University Centre in Shrewsbury was full with standing room only to listen to a discussion between Simon Nightingale, Chairman of Shropshire Humanists and Peter Bellingham, Pastor of the Well in Shrewsbury. This is Simon’s presentation. Peter’s was posted yesterday.

I recognise some fellow humanists out there and there may be others among you who live without religion and who won’t be surprised by what I’m going say.

In some ways it’s more important for me to talk to those of you with religious faith about non-religious morality. You see – when I speak to religious groups or interfaith groups, the issue they’re always most interested in, what really puzzles them is where non-religious people get their moral values – without the benefit of a Bible or Koran or Torah, Like Dostoyevsky they assume “If God is dead, then everything is permitted”.

And then they ask “anyway even if you can work out some sort of moral values, why do you bother to follow them?” Which is a rather different question – a good question that also needs answering.

So this evening I’ll talk about where non-religious people, like humanists, get their morals. At the end if I have time or during the discussions, I’ll talk a bit about what motivates us to do what we’ve worked out is right and how we can encourage both others and ourselves to do the right thing.

How do we know stuff?

So how do we know what is right or wrong? Actually how do we know anything? That’s a philosophical discipline known as epistemology. Most of us recognise that truth comes from two well studied sources that philosophers have called: “Axiomatic truth and discovered truth” or “Analytic and synthetic truth” or “Necessary and contingent” and so on.

The first, axiomatic truth consists of logic, maths and definitions. They’re true because their opposite isn’t possible. Two and two equal four; that’s what the numbers 2 and 4 and the addition function mean. Part of the definition of a dog is that it’s a mammal; so “dogs are mammals” is an axiomatic truth. If I like all beer and Boddingtons is a beer, then I like Boddingtons; proposition logic is axiomatic

The second source of truth, discovered truth, is rather different. So as a humanist, I believe that the best way to find out if a thing’s true is by studying that thing, by observing, by investigating and, if necessary, by experimenting. That gives me a basic understanding (a hypothesis, if you like) and then I look carefully to see if I can find other things that agree with my idea and, more importantly, things that disprove it or at least make me revise it. 

It’s the constant testing and challenging of our ideas that’s so important in what we call the “scientific method” and it’s the way knowledge moves forward. Scientists have the humility to recognise that our discovered truth may not be the whole truth, but it’s the “best hypothesis so far” and it may change when we learn more.

This humanist view of knowledge is similar to what’s called naturalism. I well remember when I first told my teenage children that I was joining the humanists and they’d got a bit confused between humanism and naturalism and naturism and were horrified at the prospect of family nudist camp holidays! Well there’s no nudity in humanism – as least not among the Shropshire humanists!

In philosophy, naturalism is the “belief that only natural laws and natural forces operate in the world”, as opposed to supernatural forces or spiritual forces.

We believe that the universe can be explained by natural laws, many of which we’ve already discovered and the rest of which are “discoverable”, at least in principle. We deny that there’s a “second layer” to existence, inhabited by gods, ghosts, and spirits.

Well, you might be saying, discovered truth, through the scientific method and naturalism, is pretty obvious, because we see around us every day what science has given us, both the benefits and the problems. But science isn’t the only way that people try and determine the truth. Some look for truth in their sacred books or rely on leaders and priests to tell them what’s true and false, even what’s right and wrong.

That’s called “revealed truth” and, unlike the discovered truth of science, revealed truth is usually held to be absolutely true, so that new discoveries can’t disprove it and revealed truth doesn’t change much over time. And, whereas with discovered truth where constant questioning and challenging are essential, with revealed truth, criticism isn’t always welcome!

There’s another form of revealed truth that many religious people rely on and that’s “personal revelation”, an inner voice that informs or guides or comforts. Humanists also experience feelings that are unexpected and unbidden and that can be very insightful, but we believe they come from our minds, our brains, and not from some external source of ultimate truth – out there somewhere.

Religious “revealed truth” and scientific “discovered truth” are sometimes at odds with one another. So for example, humanists believe evolution rather than creationism; science rather than mystery; critical thinking rather than blind faith; natural explanations rather than supernatural ones; understanding rather than prejudice (that is “pre-judging”). Humanists make up their minds based on reason and evidence and compassion for our fellow humans; we don’t prejudge by starting with a sacred rule book.

But science isn’t just about the physical world; nothing’s off limits in our search for the truth.  How our minds work and brains work are studied by psychology and neuroscience, but also our personality, consciousness, free will and even our sense of religiosity and spirituality and morality – these can all be studied and have been studied extensively. 

OK that’s enough about knowledge in general and the difference between revealed truth and discovered truth. Right – here’s my first big question about morality.

Are there “Universal Truths” about right and wrong?

Are “good and bad”, universal truths that apply throughout the universe and are, in some way, separate from us. So, for example, would “good and bad” exist even we didn’t know about them? Even if we didn’t exist? Were good and bad there before life evolved on this planet over 3 billion years ago?

I’ll give you an example of what I mean – an analogy. I look at the sunset and it’s beautiful. I eat a marmite sandwich and it’s so tasty. Is it the sunset that’s actually beautiful? Is the beauty of the sunset separate from me? Is the beauty intrinsic to the sunset? Even if no-one saw it, is the sunset still beautiful?

Marmite? Well Marmite has some verifiable properties; it’s black and sticky. Is its totally wonderful taste just another property of marmite, a universal truth about marmite separate from any human taste buds? I think not!

You know the saying “beauty is in the mind of the beholder”. It’s in here (the brain) that the sunset’s beauty is created and that marmite is considered really tasty – or not! So beauty is a “human construct” and, although most agree about sunsets, we don’t all agree about marmite.

As a neurologist I’ve seen patients with brain damage who can see and describe a sunset and they know that it should be beautiful, but their brain damage prevents any experience or enjoyment or appreciation of beauty.

The idea that there are universal values out there that we have to find is known as realism and so I would say that beauty is non-realist, because it’s a human construct. It’s made in here (the brain) – it’s actually made up in here.

In the same way, are good and bad out there separate from us? Out there for us to find? That’s what’s called the “realist”” position.

Or are good and bad something that our extraordinarily complex, evolved brain has developed? A human construct like the beauty of the sunset or marmite’s wonderful taste.

The trouble is that the idea that morality might be something that comes out of our brains immediately rings alarm bells – understandably. If we each just make up what’s right and wrong, isn’t that the road to chaos and anarchy? The worst sort of moral relativism? A “Game of Thrones” scenario! What the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said would cause the life of man to be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Of course, if each of us made up our own “right and wrong” and we all had different ideas, it would indeed be a nightmare. You might think that it’s fine to kill; he doesn’t. You might think that it’s fine to cheat; he thinks we should all be honest. If it’s all made up by us and there’s no independent absolute universal right or wrong, then “do what you like – anything goes!”.

And that’s the fear of many of those in the faith groups or interfaith groups that I talk to. That’s what scares those who believe in the realist position; the typical religious position. That’s the fear behind the fact that humanism and atheism is illegal in over 30 countries world wide and has the death sentence in 13. Even Pope Benedict said humanists live in a moral vacuum.

But you know it’s not like that – it’s not a nightmare. At the moment over half the population of this country live without religion and for young people it’s over 70% and yet it hasn’t degenerated into Sodom and Gomorrah – even in central Shrewsbury late on a Saturday night. (okay maybe occasionally just a touch of Sodom and Gomorrah!)

The origin of moral values

For the rest of my allotted time I’m going to try and convince you that we actually agree with each other about most important aspects of morality – and also what’s really interesting is that the moral values of non-religious people are actually pretty similar to the moral values of those with (moderate) religion.

My first evidence comes from scientific studies of what’s known as positive psychology. Clinical psychology is mainly about when our thoughts and mental processes go wrong, for example anxiety, depression, psychosis and so on. Positive psychology is when our thoughts and mental processes go well. Positive psychology is about wellbeing, what makes us happy. Surveys among people of all backgrounds and cultures have shown a large consensus about what are desirable character strengths – “virtues” if you like. A brief run down…

    Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, open-mindedness, love of learning, innovation
    Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity
    Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
    Justice: fairness, good leadership
    Temperance: forgiveness, humility, self control – not too much beer!
    Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence; a sense of awe and wonder; and hope and humour.

I don’t think many would argue with these, though we might disagree on which were the most important. They are not so different from the ancient virtues in Plato’s Republic or the iconic theological virtues of faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians 13, together with some cardinal virtues added later by Saint Ambrose.

My second source of evidence is based on the results of research on human morality in a number of academic centres. The earlier phenomenological research of positive psychology (that is the descriptive studies) have been refined and extended

An area of research known as Moral Foundation Theory has shown that people of all cultures and races have basic moral values and interestingly most of these basic moral values are seen in the higher animals too. They vary from person to person, just as not everyone’s the same height. So to a greater of lesser extent, everyone has a sense of love and compassion; some more and some less; also a sense of fairness and justice. Both compassion and fairness are expressed in animals. And animals of course have little or no culture and so in animals these moral values are entirely inherited.

And like many animals we have a strong sense of hierarchy and so, to a greater or lesser extent, we all respect those in authority -like the leader of the pack or pecking order in birds. And we have strong loyalties, even to those who are kith rather than kin. And we have a strong sense of taboo – usually taboos about sex (such as prohibition of incest); or contamination taboos about food and hygiene often manifest as instinctive “disgust”.

These moral senses vary for each of us. So for example with empathic concern, there’s a normal distribution like this (a bell-shaped normal distribution). Most of us are in the middle. Some with advanced empathic skills (more usually women) and some (usually men) with rather less empathy. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to the women here!

What causes this variation? Why don’t we all have the same degree of empathy? There can only be two causes for this variation; genetics or environment, that’s to say nature or nurture. Or of course a combination of the two.

A number of robust research studies have estimated the degree to which the variation in, say, empathy is due to our genes. You’ll be familiar with twin studies which look as the similarity (or concordance) between identical twins compared to non-identical twins. That gives a figure of about 50% for emotional empathy and 40% in our sense of fairness.

In other words about half of the variation in these moral values is due to our genes. In a way that’s not surprising. In animals the figure is almost 100% genetic and we probably were similar to that in our early human evolution. But then we evolved into social animals and developed culture which is passed on to following generations. During our social evolution, the genetic contribution to the variation of moral behaviour has fallen.

And this is similar to other complex skills we inherit. As a neurologist with an interest in cognitive neuro-psychology, I’m familiar with research showing that when we’re born, our brain has many built-in systems – like a new computer that comes already loaded with Windows, so we don’t have to learn everything from scratch. For example, we have innate programs for learning language, though, of course, which language depends on what we hear as we grow up. In the same way we’re all born with basic instinctive moral programs, though like everything we inherit, these innate morals vary from person to person.
Compassion, fairness, respect for authority, group loyalty, taboos all innate to a significant extent, but of course moulded by our experiences, our upbringing. Nature and nurture working together.

Assessing “moral intelligence”

Psychologists can estimate where an individual is on the moral spectrum and refer to this as moral intelligence – analogous to IQ which measures cognitive intelligence or EQ emotional intelligence (that’s your ability to recognise and express a range of emotions).
I’ll show you what I mean. When assessing someone’s moral intelligence, they’re often given a thought experiment. Let’s see how you lot do!
A man breaks into a pharmacy to steal drugs. OK, that’s bad; if he’s caught, he’ll go to prison. We all agree – even those with poor moral intelligence, like psychopaths, who say “well he broke in and that’s against the law”.
Let’s change the story a bit. He is stealing an anti-cancer drug for his wife who’s dying of cancer because the chemist has demanded £2000 even though the drug only costs him £20. The man breaks in, leaves £40 for the drug (which is only worth £20) and mends the broken window before he leaves.
Our gut intuition tells us that it’s now more complicated than simply right or wrong. For example we have considerable compassion for the husband – and his wife of course. Our sense of fairness is affronted by the greed of the pharmacist. But you know, there’s also a bit of concern for the pharmacist – after all he was burgled and, you know, we all worry about people talking the law into their own hands, even in cases like this. Maybe that’s our innate respect for authority.
Our gut intuition isn’t bad, but research has shown that intuition is hugely open to bias. Many of our intuitions are undoubtedly self serving, basically selfish.
How might one try and be objective in assessing the rights and wrongs? An area of philosophy known as normative ethics – that goes back to the ancient Greeks.
A very quick overview of how we apply normative ethics to the pharmacy break-in.
Firstly, we might carefully consider the outcomes for all involved (the husband, the pharmacist and of course the wife) – technically that’s called “consequentialism” (the utilitarian calculus that determines if the action (stealing the drug) maximises the good outcome for the most people). This revolutionized ethics when first introduced by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
Secondly, partly as a foil to the potential excesses of consequentialism, we have basic “human rights” – for example the right not to be robbed. Human rights also have a long history, dating back to John Locke and Thomas Paine

Thirdly, if you don’t want to be robbed, you shouldn’t rob others (that’s “mutuality” or the Golden Rule). The Golden Rule’s been around for a very long time and no particular religion has any prior claim to it. Its earliest record is in the second millennium BC in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Fourth, there is also a requirement in civilised society to obey laws (to uphold the social contract), even laws we don’t personally like (that’s sort of called Kantian “deontology”).
Lastly but not least at all, we might consider what’s in the mind of the man breaking in. Are his intentions good (like helping his wife with minimum harm to others) or bad (like steeling heroin to sell to addicts)? That’s an area of philosophy called “virtue ethics”, dating back to Aristotle.
Now it really doesn’t matter what you eventually decide about the break-in or whether you can put fancy philosophical names to these ideas – ideas that you all understood. What’s important is that the greater your ability to recognise this complexity and the better you understand that the context might change the rights and wrongs of the pharmacy break in, then the greater is your moral sophistication. Psychopaths score very badly – they shrug and just say as before “well he broke in and that’s against the law”. Correct, but not morally sophisticated like us!

What humanists are saying here is that it’s biology and culture that have created our moral sense. That rather than religion giving us morality, our natural moral instincts (for example the golden rule) have often been adopted by religions. That’s one reason that the moral values of different religions are so similar.


My plan today was to explain how for me and those like me who live without religion, human morality originates from our shared ideas of good character and virtue, based to a large extend on innate moral foundations, modified by our unique reasoning ability (unique among animals) and so leading to a secular normative ethics.

I have put forward (I hope) a reasoned and evidence-based account of the humanist view. But I haven’t as yet directly compared my account of moral origins to religious accounts.
So let me address my last comments to Peter who is someone I admire for his intelligence and his knowledge of not just of theology, but of philosophy and neuroscience. And I also admire Peter for being a man “who walks the walk – not just talks the talk”. He and his family worked as missionaries in Honduras (a very scary place) and he has dedicated his life to making the world better.
But I say to Peter that a basic god-given moral principle such as “thou shalt not steal” is a good start, but you still need to reflect, as we did just now, when considering the man who broke into the pharmacy. We reflect using our innate compassion and sense of fairness and respect for authority and our advanced reasoning ability.
We humanists see no advantage in starting with an over-simple commandment, like “don’t steal”. And stealing is one of the easier moral issues. Consider abortion, assisted dying, sexual orientation, animal welfare, genetic engineering. Humanists would say that these challenging issues are better studied and discussed using reason and evidence – rather than by referring to sacred texts.
So I say to Peter close your bible, stop seeking guidance from above and work out the right moral values for yourself! You can do it, Peter!!!

2 Responses to “Where do we get our morals? By Simon Nightingale of Shropshire Humanists”

  1. Mike Radford Says:

    Philosophical point of order; An a priori proposition is not the same as an axiomatic one. A priori propositions (all bachelors are unmarried. 2 + 2 = 4) are true or false by virtue of the definitions of their terms. False a priori propositions are self-contradictory and true ones are tautologies. Axiomatic propositions on the other hand, can be true or false (their negation is not a contradiction) and stand as the foundational understanding upon which depends a network of following propositions. The proposition that ‘A loving God created the world’ is axiomatic to much religious belief. The proposition that ‘Only natural laws and forces operate in the world’ is similarly an axiomatic statement that some Humanists adopt. Neither proposition can be shown to be true but is simply conditional to a certain way of viewing the world.


  2. microglyphics Says:

    Interesting lecture, though I still don’t buy that this moral centre is anything more than selective vision and wishful thinking. I think the causal direction runs in the opposite direction.


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