Share This Post

Articles / Blog

The Foundations of Morality

The Foundations of Morality

Perhaps morality isn’t so complicated. Upon reflection, the foundations of morality are summed up in two simple sentences: I feel bad when I treat another poorly. I risk being treated poorly if I treat another poorly. The first sentence speaks to our innate human empathy. The second sentence speaks to the fact that we are an interconnected, interdependent social species that has to live together. These are simply unavoidable, inevitable facts about us and any other social creatures that may exist like us. Certainly, there will always be difficult situations that there are no easy answers to. However, in terms of foundations, this is about as secure as it gets.

Divine Command

When we consider deviations from these basic facts, the flaws are quite conspicuous. The mistaken belief that morality is founded on obedience to authority, or emanating from that authority (human or divine), entails being a minion. It enshrines ‘might makes right’ and requires no thought, no feeling, no understanding, or growth. It is really an abdication of morality, and the pernicious poverty of this kind of thinking is observable through time.

When laws and rights were unquestionable divine edicts, they were implemented or removed by self-proclaimed divinely-appointed rulers, done with little regard for facts or their real-world consequences. When seen for what laws and rights are: beneficial human inventions that we necessarily come to in order to enjoy the benefits of society, they can be seen as improvable, and thus society does improve.

The age-old religious thinking that everything was ordained by god, was a great obstacle that the Enlightenment thinkers who established modern secular democracy had to overcome, even as some still invoked a vague god of nature. But it was verifiable nature, real human needs and desires, not appeasing god, that became the foundation. And universal laws and standards founded in demonstrable facts, and our factual common humanity, make for bad bedfellows when combined with invented human religions claiming that all but they will burn forever, and that they alone possess fantastical and unverifiable alternative truths.

Tribalism & Violence

While our nature and the nature of our relations give us the foundations of morality, they also of course give us the foundations of what we deem immoral. When it comes to violence and tribalism, we of course inherit that along with our cooperative side. Our big brains enable us to go to levels of altruism and malice far beyond that of other animals. In our evolutionary history, living in small tribes, cooperation pertained to our in-group and competition largely to our out-group. But there is a clear element of randomness in violence that makes it less reliable than cooperation. Consulting history shows that the most flourishing societies are ones that attempt to take care of all their members, thus preventing chaos. They make peace with other societies, thus enabling the trade of goods and ideas rather than inviting the threat of destruction. Duplicitous, uncaring societies (like duplicitous, uncaring people) leave much to be desired, even for those too inebriated by power to see it.

Violence of course also doesn’t sit well with our empathy, which would be unavoidable and foundational, even if there were no benefits to acting on it. We simply need and desire others. Even psychopaths who lack empathy are called back to morality’s and society’s roundtable as they are not eternally invulnerable. And for violent ideologues, turning minds to corpses doesn’t change the minds of the corpses. Especially now that our tribe is ultimately (and probably inevitably) global, it’s in all our interests to cooperate and reap the brainpower and manpower that we have always been able to produce when we work together, as we depend on even the achievements of the dead. Our ability to communicate and build off of what has come before is an indelible core of human achievement.


The tool we use to identify moral foundations is the same tool we use to develop morality beyond them, the same tool we use for everything else: reason. Reason clearly evolved and survived alongside our social instincts because it helped us to. For a mobile, thinking species like us, if our beliefs didn’t correspond well enough to reality we wouldn’t have survived. The fact that the findings of science on very large, small, and fast scales escape our intuitive grasp is what we would expect if reason had evolutionary origins honed to our environments.

Even without any ultimate or divine foundation, reason works, and this is demonstrated by all we’ve been able to do and build. This is the only foundation or justification it needs. It may be true that there is bad reasoning or that one could conceivably reason their way to anything, but it is reason that corrects past errors in reasoning. One also can’t argue against reason without using reason. And as the simple notion of two plus two equals four shows, solid reasoning is deterministic, corresponding to the patterns by which our universe operates. Further, reason allows us to harmonize the conflicts within ourselves reasonably.

Reason tells us that if others’ rights are curtailed then ours can be, too, and that certain paths will move us objectively closer to or further from human flourishing. It tells us that if destructive impulses are left to reign, then there would of course be nothing, or very little, left. Countless possibilities would also be curtailed; as they were when we enslaved women and people of other nations, races, and belief systems. Those groups might have produced unquantifiable friendships, love, geniuses, or the simple coming together of minds that might have led to genius outcomes. Ignorance, fallacies, and outright failures to reason are behind a good deal of our inhumanity.

Many of those aforementioned complicated issues lie before us. Issues like AI, the scientific refuting of free will, the progress and potential hazards of technology, and genetic engineering. It’s clear that, along with empathy and facts, reason is our best bet at handling them well. Even if some holy book (created by humans) from antiquity did address any of these issues, it would still be addressing them in a tribalistic, unthinking (or mentally pre-determined) way that licenses the dismissal of non-adherents. It would not speak to them or all of humanity like objective facts, evidence, reason, and our common humanity could. Our common humanity in our common home is the only narrative we all share or need.


As has been said, it takes a good deal of work to climb down from the trees and start building a global civilization in the span of a few million years. With accumulating historical experience and factual scientific data about ourselves and the world, we’ve gone from universal slavery to its near-universal illegality. We’ve seen entire transformations in knowledge and thought bring entire transformations in levels of success and understanding. Mental or physical illness as demonic possession or divine wrath requiring punishment and slaughter gave way to chemical imbalances and microorganisms requiring treatment. Our sick children are now taken to doctors and not exorcists. Our whole trajectory as humans is going from cave-dwellers to space explorers once we realized, at least in practice, that it is up to us to improve ourselves and the world, that we need each other to do it, and that no other entity will protect us or do it for us.

Morality is not written in the indifference of the stars, but it is written in our biology and discovered by our reason, and so it is and will be with any other social animal or life like us. So it is written in our laws the more we have grown and realized it. It’s at the core of most of our natures to desire survival and flourishing, and any prescription for those goals that does not consider the bedrock facts of empathy and interdependence will be defective.

(Note: While I see no need to get into objective vs subjective, as these foundations stand without labels or categories, theists claim their morality is objective despite its source being a subject with its subjective opinions, however powerful. See the Euthyphro Dilemma for a complete dismantling of divine command morality. In short, it asks: does god command something because it’s moral or is something moral because god commands it? If god commands things because they’re moral, or to say god is good, is to admit that morality/goodness exists separately from and doesn’t require “god”. If goodness/morality are whatever god commands, those terms are rendered meaningless and arbitrary and what we would find evil becomes good if god commands it-as happens frequently in scripture.

Put another way: if god has good reasons for his moral commands, those reasons can be appealed to without the middleman. If he (she/it) doesn’t, his morality is unreasonable and undesirable, and only fear or prudence, hardly very moral, would compel you to follow them. Saying god’s nature (the nature of an undefinable, shifting, unproven, incomprehensible being) is good, leads to a restating of the question: is the goodness a fundamental component of god, or is his nature good because goodness exists independent of god and he aligns his nature with goodness? If the former, good is just an arbitrary designation referring to god’s nature, and there is no yardstick to measure what goodness is or prove god’s commands are moral.

Further, given the profligate misery of our world and the multiplicity, ineffectiveness, and terror of religion, the existence of an evil god appears at least as likely as a benevolent one. The idea of hell alone is responsible for oceans of blood and is an ultimate barrier to unity, reason, peace, tolerance, and progress. Simply ask yourself if human kindness, reason, potential, well-being were better in the ages when this thinking reigned absolutely. Reflect on how frameworks such as Christianity have nothing to do with moral accountability, as serial killers can come to Jesus and be in heaven while compassionate people who are simply (involuntarily) unconvinced of an unsupported proposition are damned. Observe the feeble and dangerous nature when one ties morality to religion and then loses that religion, while we will always be social animals among social animals that have to live together.)



A Justified Faith

Share This Post

Landon Haynes has blogged and been a podcast guest with Atheist Republic and currently writes for Atheist Alliance International, with a focus on history and the Enlightenment. He also has a published book, "A Justified Faith" which argues for "faith" in human potential based on its overall progress over history in comparison with the unjustified blind faith of religion. He recently started a YouTube channel, "FOR-SIGHT-PARADIGM", with occasional well-known guests. He has lived in Japan, Central America, and the US and has dabbled in recording music and has written since he was young.