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Where do morals come from? Brother Jed is at it again…

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Hello all!

Brother Jed posted a transcript of his opening statement from his Monday debate with Brandon Christen on his Facebook profile. In it, he repeated, nearly verbatim, an argument he made during his debate with me last April (see the 7-minute mark or so). We went over this last year quite thoroughly (I thought), and I’m disappointed to see he’s still trotting out the same, already-refuted argument. This appears to be, it seem sto me, a textbook example of intellectual dishonesty on his part.

Here’s the relevant bit to today’s post:

If there is no God, who or what is the source and foundation of morality?  Morals deal with right and wrong in our interpersonal relationships.  Morals are personal; the source of morals must be connected with a personal God, who himself is a subject of moral obligation and who chooses to use his great powers morally.

Atheists affirm that all that exists is matter, energy, space and time.  The problem for atheism is that these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality.  Matter, energy, space and time are impersonal and non-moral.  How does the personal come out of the impersonal?  How does the moral come from stuff that is non-moral?

Men universally have a sense of moral obligation.  “I ought; I ought not.” What is the source of moral obligation?

How, in a world which is ultimately the product of time, chance and material particles, did there come to be such things as moral obligations?

The existence of moral obligations makes more sense in a universe in which the ultimate reality is a moral Person than it does in a universe where persons are a late and insignificant by product of impersonal forces. The notion of morals requires a Moral Governor that Moral Governor is the God of the Bible.

I hardly know where to start with this. Here is what I have to say about it:

‎”Atheists affirm that all that exists is matter, energy, space and time.”

I think you’re 1) confusing atheists with metaphysical naturalists and 2) forgetting that matter=energy and space=time.

“The problem for atheism is that these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality. Matter, energy, space and time are impersonal and non-moral. How does the personal come out of the impersonal? How does the moral come from stuff that is non-moral?”

You asked this exact same question last year at Speakers’ Circle and again during our debate last April, Jed. I have already given you a sufficient scientific response. I have recommended to you books that thoroughly answer this using abundant evidence. Your question is not a mystery to scientists and hasn’t been a mystery to scientists for quite awhile now; in fact the answer to this question is the point of an entire field of science called sociobiology. Some of the bigger names in research in this field are E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal, Robert Axelrod, and Samuel Bowles. Others you might want to read, if you actually want to know the answer to this question rather than just sound profound for continuing to raise it to people who haven’t heard it before, are Michael Shermer and Matt Ridley. Again, I have already told you all of this.

I think you just like to say the phrase “late and insignificant by product of impersonal forces.” Just because morality is a byproduct of impersonal forces does not mean that it’s insignificant. That’s a claim YOU’RE making, not a claim scientists have made.

You insist – and persist – in attempting to paint the origin of morality like it’s some huge mystery that has no possible earthly explanation, and therefore MUST have come from your god, while simultaneously completely ignoring the scientific explanation I repeatedly provide to you every time you bring this up.

Do you just not care that science has actually answered this question?

Evolution is sufficient to explain morality in cooperative animals, humans included. We have WAY more evidence than the minimum to demonstrate that this is the case. I recommend the books “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley and “A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution” by Samuel Bowles if you are actually interested in the scientific answer to your question, “How does the moral come from the stuff that is non-moral?” This is an extremely well-documented concept in science.

Again, to be absolutely clear, how morals arise naturally from impersonal forces is NOT a mystery for scientists. Just because you don’t understand (or refuse to look at) where morality came from scientifically does not mean that, therefore, natural elements are insufficient to explain it.

What you are saying here is known in logic as an argument from incredulity. You are essentially saying, “I don’t understand how morality could have come about naturally. Therefore, morality must not have come about naturally.” This is a fallacy. We can readily show how morality comes about naturally, and in fact have done this in abundance in controlled settings. There’s LOTS of absolutely fascinating research that combines the game theory of economics with evolutionary biology to demonstrate it quite readily, in fact.

I would really love for this to be the last time we go through this dog & pony show, but I have a feeling you’re not even going to read this, let alone read the books I recommended. I like you, Jed, but you’ve been stuck on this idea that morals must have come from a god for at least several years now. Do you continue to raise the question because, after considering the evidence, you find the scientific explanation insufficient [in which case, what are your scientific objections]? Or have you just not even looked into it? The latter is my guess.

If you want to know where morals came from, read “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley, so we can finally put this to bed. Where morals came from is not a mystery to science, and it has nothing to do with your god. Science has answered this question; it’s time to put this to bed.

Until next time!

– Dave

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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2 comments on “Where do morals come from? Brother Jed is at it again…

  1. Alex Papulis
    April 19, 2012

    Dave, I think there’s a deeper issue. This is what I tried to deal with in my first presentation. It’s one thing to explain where “moral” behavior comes from, or where beliefs about morality come from, it’s another thing to explain why we should believe that moral properties/values/relations/etc. actually exist.

    It’s similar to belief in the supernatural. Is it unexplained where the belief came from? Having an explanation for why the belief is held certainly does not amount to justifying the existence of the thing itself.

    With morality, here’s the more consistent position: moral properties/values/etc. don’t exist, as they do not fit into a scientific view of the world. Moral properties are the sort of thing that obligate or require something, but that sort of thing would be metaphysically unlike anything else that we are familiar with. We’re familiar with properties like weight, but what’s an obligating property? How would any configuration of the world require something from people?

    And even if such a property did exist, how would we know about its existence? Our eyes let us see, our ears let us hear, etc., by what faculty would we detect obligating things? What equipment would we use to detect them?

    This is along the lines of Mackie’s argument from queerness. To anyone interested in getting a fuller exposition, I highly recommend his “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”. The first chapter is sufficient for getting the argument.


  2. rocketkirchner
    April 19, 2012

    The problem as i see it with the BroJed / SASHA debates in general is that it is a rational Theist against a rational Atheist. Rationailists have so much in commen yet are splitting hairs that it becomes tautological . Oscar Wilde settled the debate when he said , ”Morality is something we make up to use on people we dont like ”. Dont Atheists and Theists do that ? I am not talking about Jed and the Sasha folks who i know , but in general .

    my point is is that if it takes moralizing on either side to prove that one is on solid epistimological ground, maybe it is time to change the subject and go at this thing from a different angle . Just a suggestion .

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