Posted by: camtimothy | May 17, 2010

Absolute Morality Part 2

In the first part of this two-part essay, I tried to define morality as being a code of behavior.  I also tried to limit that code to behavior toward ourselves and toward other humans.  This necessarily takes animals and gods out of the equation.  Some might disagree, but my search is for an absolute morality, or at least a universal morality for humans that is not derived from any divine commandments.  Since behavior toward animals and gods is highly subjective and relative to our environments and culture as well as our attitude toward such creatures, I do not think that we could ever all agree upon a code of behavior that included those creatures.

Certainly, a segment of humanity believes that animals have, or should have, rights, possibly even the same rights that civilized nations accord their human citizens.  While I do not advocate cruelty to animals and have owned and loved animals as pets, I still eat animal flesh and have no plans to discontinue this practice, so if you wish to include animals in your own personal morality, I am fine with that, for you!

I have to also exclude gods and other supernatural creatures from being beneficiaries of any sort of absolute (i.e. universal) morality.  This of course presumes that a deity does not make His or Her existence and wishes known to modern humans in a very direct and indisputable manner.  Personally, I do not believe that such an event is likely, and is most likely impossible.  Claims of past appearances lack a certain amount of credibility.  OK, I think that most all claimants were human and were either insane or working a con game.  Could be wrong, but I need evidence before I would be willing to believe in such beings, let alone accept their other-worldly directives.  And without belief, I cannot consider as candidates for a universal morality any actions or inactions that involve supernatural beings. 

Worshipping a specific god, taking the name of a god in vain, maintaining a specific day as that god’s holy day, all of these are moral to specific religions and are meaningless to all who do not share a belief in that deity.

So I came to the conclusion in Part 1 that the best candidate for an absolute or universal morality would be to “do no harm to other humans.”

Fairly innocuous, I think, and a concept that I think most everyone should be able to agree with.  But does that idea go far enough?  Should there be something more, something of a more active moral imperative?  After all, simply standing still and doing nothing does no harm.  However, inaction could certainly result in harm.  What about a moral imperative to prevent harm?  Perhaps even a command to promote life or liberty or happiness?

Unfortunately, while these may be good ideas, they begin to enter the realm of relative actions.

Suppose, for example, that we have a healthy adult man driving home from work, and he passes a house that is on fire.  Stopping, he does what most of us in today’s modern technological society would do: he calls 911 on his cell phone and reports the fire to the proper authorities.  In most modern cities, he can now be reasonably confident that the fire department, with trained and well-equipped personnel, will arrive soon and deal with the fire.

But while he is sitting in his car waiting for the fire department to arrive and watching the fire, he hears the screams of children trapped inside the burning house…

Now, he is faced with serious choices.  If he does nothing, perhaps the fire department will arrive in time to get inside and rescue the children, but perhaps they will not arrive in time and the children will die. 

On the other hand, he is one man, he is not trained for this; nor is he equipped with any sort of breathing apparatus or protective gear.  If he goes in, he faces the possibility that he will fail and not only will the children die, but so might he.

We all arguably hope that if we were faced with such a situation that we would have the courage to attempt to rescue the children.   Certainly in such a case we would be acting in a positive manner to “prevent harm to other humans”.  A good candidate for an absolute morality?

Maybe, maybe not.  The children are not his. The house is not his. He does not know the children or their parents or even one of their relatives or friends. They are complete strangers.  On the other hand, our Samaritan is married, he has children of his own, and they depend upon the presence of their father for their sustenance and support.  By entering the house and dying, the man causes great future harm to his own family.   

Perhaps he succeeds in rescuing the children in the burning house, but suffers crippling injuries in doing so.  Now, he deprives his own family of a productive father and husband, and he adds to their burden by being alive, but hurt and requiring constant care perhaps for many years.

So altruism and courage come with a price, and the “goodness” of certain actions may outweigh, or be outweighed by the potential consequences.

Of course, if faced with such a situation and having only seconds to react, we will most likely react according to our own individual instincts.  Some of us will head for the front door of the house and make every human effort possible to rescue the children; others will freeze and be unable to act; others will weight the consequences and opt to wait for the fire department; sadly, some will turn their cell phone into a camera and simply take pictures to put on Facebook or YouTube later. 

Regardless, I am not sure that we can condemn or praise our subject no matter what he does or does not do.  Perhaps, one might want to know just how far along the fire is before making a decision here.  Is the house even accessible or has the fire made entry for even the equipped and trained virtually impossible?

No matter how you look at this situation, it becomes a matter of relative morality, not absolute.

 So maybe we modify the moral imperative and say that one should “prevent harm to other humans WHENEVER POSSIBLE”.  Or perhaps to take a note from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and other programs based on the Steps), we can add “EXCEPT WHEN TO DO SO WOULD INJURE THEM OR OTHERS”.

This, to me, does become somewhat unwieldy, but I think that if we are to consider adding to our initial moral imperative, then we are automatically adding complexity.  Complexity means modification.  It also means that we need to consider this more of a universal morality than an absolute morality.  After all, if the morality is absolute, then we should not need to add modifiers or qualifications.

So here would be my suggestions for a secular humanist universal morality—a code of behavior toward self and other humans:

1) Do no harm to other humans

2) Prevent harm from coming to other humans except when doing so would hurt or injure them or other humans.

Now, as for this suggested morality being based in science, I would say that of course it is.  In terms of humanity’s evolutionary development, we survived and thrived because teamwork and unity overcame the physical disadvantages of being a creature without large fangs, powerful limbs, claws, or great speed.  The intelligence and cleverness for making weapons and tools are meaningless without a group dynamic for taking advantage of these assets. We see this in other primates, especially chimps and bonobos, our closest cousins!

Fair enough?  Do we need to go even farther, or have we gone too far?  Is a secular humanist morality detailed enough or too detailed? Can we have such a thing without resorting to supernatural directives? 

I think we can, and we should!



  1. You may wish to pop on over to my blog at where I’m trying to derive a “science of morality” from first principles. I could use all the devil’s advocates that I can get. 🙂

  2. Thank you. I read your blog and while your points are excellent, I do feel that a universal morality, i.e. one that works regardless of culture or geography needs to be kept very simple. If the only question asked before performing an action is “does this action cause harm to myself or to other humans?” then we have an easy and, I think, universal gauge of whether that action is moral, immoral, or morally neutral. Doesn’t mean that we cannot go beyond that simple question and introduce levels of complexity, but as soon as we do that, we begin to enter the realm of cultural relativity. You also then have to look at situational relativity: a 25 year old healthy person sitting on his porch doing nothing all day could be seen as immoral, while a retired 70 year old person has earned the right to sit on the porch doing nothing! Of course, if the day involved is a day off from work, then the 25 year old may also be acting morally by doing nothing! For that matter, the act of sitting on the porch doing nothing may be morally neutral. Do no harm to humans. All the rest is debate! Am enjoying your blog! Tim Campbell

  3. I agree with you in principle, but I think that there are several sticky wickets which keep this from being practical as a universal moral code:

    1) With regard to both clauses, what is the definition of “harm”?

    For example (and please, everyone, this is just an example, not an attempt to start a different debate): does denying homosexuals the right to marry cause them harm? I’d say yes, but many people would say no. Unless you can define “harm”, your code degrades into relativism.

    2) With regard to the second clause, what if, by causing harm to another person, we can prevent a greater harm from befalling them? For example, is it moral to deprive a mentally ill person of their liberty in order to prevent them from harming themselves? Where is the line drawn? Is it never appropriate to cause harm while preventing harm? If it is sometimes appropriate, how much difference in level of harm must there be to make it appropriate? Who is the judge?

    3) Also with regard to the second clause, what if by harming one person, I can prevent harm from befalling others? The old “Would it be moral to kill Hitler in order to prevent the Holocaust?” dilemma.

    With one exception (mentioned below), I think all moral codes suffer from these sorts of problems, even something as simple as “Murder is wrong” (clearly it is not wrong in all circumstances, unless we resort to “well, in that case it’s not murder”).

    Matt Dillahunty (of “The Atheist Experience” fame) came up with the only moral statute that I’ve ever heard that holds in all circumstances: “It is never moral to own another human being as property.” Beyond that, things get complicated.

  4. To drw6:
    I agree with your point regarding the definition of “harm”. But there will always be words that need to be defined. “Harm” is pretty self-evident, BUT there may come up situations in which levels of harm may need to be gauged before acting. That is where situational ethincs comes into play.
    I think that absolute morality is both undesirable, as well as impossible without bending to authority.

    A universal morality, on the other hand, can be implemented without authority. Again, this is a morallity for all humans. Laws and cultural imperatives are going to be existant, but would exist underneath the basic tenet of universal moralilty.
    Your idea on slavery is certainy a good idea, but that also is highly situational. Doesn’t help me judge how to act toward you other than I ought not own you!
    I am anti-absolute; pro-universal!
    Tim Campbell

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