God Given Morality

The Moral Argument.

Since I am a nerd, I often listen to debates on Youtube with one ear bud while I continue to grind to level 30 on LoL. In the past week, I have heard the argument that morality can only have originated from God repeated dozens of times. I dislike this argument, more so because I have read a book that indirectly speaks to this issue quite well. So here is something for my fellow members of the godless horde to toss in your debate “kit bag” as we surge ever forth to fulfill Glen Beck’s paranoid prophecy to destroy grandma, America, and apple pie.

So if you want a good case study in how our morals evolved in respect to homicide those morals are expressed in humans before cultural militaristic / violent societal indoctrination, I present On Killing by LTC Dave Grossman.

On killing is the story of how western governments first recognized an apparent instinctual avoidance of inflicting fatal wounds during battle which was expressed by around 80% of Soldiers. The author goes on to discuss how governments have learned to retrain humans to improve their likelihood of killing in combat with an in-depth discussion on how the United States mastery of Pavlovian training has assisted in the military’s dominance on the planet. In the modern American Military, 9 out of 10 Soldiers will shoot center mass if presented with a situation where he or she deems deadly force is required.

A thesis emerges from On Killing, barring Sociopaths (at least 10% of us), human beings will go through elaborate measures to avoid killing; even doing things that increase the likelihood that the person themselves will kill, such as purposely shooting over an enemy’s head or using melee weapons in the least lethal techniques. Interestingly, these methods of avoiding killing blows are employed by the majority of un-trained Soldiers around the world with absolutely no formal instructions on being less lethal, according to Grossman.

Before firearms, when armies joined in swirling melees it was most common to slash at your opponent. Even though every professional Soldier and leader knew that a stab was far more likely to result in a kill. It was simply hard to produce this behavior in most Soldiers in battle. Soldiers would stab away at a hay target but, would not replicate the action on the battlefield. Few armies were able to foster this combat behavior in Soldiers with any great success. Grossman supposes that the slash was meant to be more of a psychological blow to a foe than anything else. He supposed that the early Soldier didn’t really want to kill his opponent; he wanted to bloody him up and scare him enough to cause him and his buddies to route. And remember, that routes saw the majority of the actual killing before the invention of firearms. The professional Soldier would be mounted or dismounted, with a substantial number of them in reserve watching the initial clash of forces. While the untrained rabble slashed away before them, attempting to push the collective psyche of the other force enough towards terror for the enemy army to say “Screw it” and run away.

The professional Soldier, which in early history would be some approximation your “Knight” archetype, on the other hand had trained since childhood to suppress his altruistic instincts. He was proficient in his warrior tasks and drills, he knew to stab. So when the enemy routed, he and his buddies would sweep in and mow down as many as they could before disengaging.

As a person who accepts the theory of evolution, I interpret the above situation in a certain way. Grossman leads me to believe that the majority of individuals are endowed by their ancestry with a imbued, instinctual prohibition against killing people. This seems to be a logical consequence of our species growing up in small kin-groups. Everyone you were likely to meet was related to you, so it’s most likely in a person’s best interest to avoid killing members of one’s tribe during conflicts as it would lessen the overall survivability of the group. The majority of people solved conflicts then as they still do today, through the establishment of dominance.

Caveman Assassin Actual wants to take control of the Rod of Power from Caveman JT. Caveman Assassin Actual decides to paint his face up, wake up Caveman JT in the middle of the night and beat the shit out of him rather than kill him. Hopefully Caveman me has shamed JT enough to relinquish the Rod and refrain from planning future challenges to my Rod-ness.

Now, occasionally this pre-civilization kin-group is going to run into a rival group comprised against people they don’t know. This is where I see the sociopath coming into the equation. My tribe needs a guy who doesn’t give two shits about murdering to protect me from this alien tribe, if only to protect his own power base. Caveman me gladly cheers on Caveman Skullcrusher and tosses him the Rod of Power if/when he kills the other tribe’s sociopath and a good portion of other tribe. All Caveman me has to do is show up, stand behind Skullcrusher, and look mean. Having Skullcrusher around increases the survivability of my group, no matter that the same psychology that makes Skullcrusher such a good skull-crusher also makes him a calculating bastard who will play the tribe against each other in order to gain power. I don’t care about that, plus he is bigger than me.

It’s interesting to note that aside from the sociopath we all know, Grossman believes there is a psychologically similar individual. Someone that we would call a hero, a person who has the same lack of inhibitions to conduct violence on his fellow human but, applies that violence in a “just” manner.

In On Killing the author recounts an interview with one such person. That person describes how he views the majority of people as sheep and the traditional sociopath as wolves. However, the interviewee chooses to describe himself as a sheepdog but, concedes that in his life he has always been outnumbered by the wolves.

Now, if morality is imbued by God then why does that morality appear to be applied to our species in a shotgun pattern and not equally (if we are all hand crafted by God as Rick Warren argues), especially when it comes to doing a little good old fashion murder on each other? Most of us are nice enough people with a strong instinctual aversion to killing, some of us are willing to do it a drop of a hat if they can get away with it, and fewer still will murder only to protect the larger group. And even the morality of that third group is completely depended on his cultural zeitgeist. The distribution of these persons furthermore appears to be in line with genetic markers rather than the belief in any particular faith.

Why would God, if he is the source of morality, leave the actual conduct of the morality as a hodgepodge of interactions between genetics, cultural influences, and matters of station as observational evidence indicates? Now the argument I get back on this is always the same, because we sin. I don’t buy it, if morality was imbued into us by God, I would think it would be an equal distribution of morality since we are all God’s creation. We would have the same base level of morality at birth and free will would then have us all deviate from a level starting point. Reality shows us that this is not the case.

What history does show is that the primary force that can override a “sheeple’s” aversion to killing is culture. Remember the hypothetical battle above where the sheeple slashed at each other while the sheepdogs and wolves looked on, waiting for the conditions to be set for their employment. Enter into that battle a new foe, enter the Romans. The Roman’s figured out that relying on wolves and sheepdogs would be insufficient to maintain a big empire. There just are not enough sheepdogs and wolves to cover the ground required. The Romans needed to turn the sheeple into meat eaters and they succeeded. Think about how watching Gladiators fight in arenas around the Empire must have changed the Roman people. Often the people in the ring would not even be slaves, they would be politicians or military leaders who sought to gain power through the public defeat and murder of a fellow human. That demonstrates the power of culture to mold people’s instincts to reflect the qualities most needed by societies. Grossman argues that most people would inherently be against killing, yet there are historical accounts how the systematic glorification of death via combat contributed in part to the greater killing potential of a Roman Soldier.

Centurions were employed to stand behind the ranks of Soldiers and their main function was to repeal instruct Soldiers to utilize their specially crafted weapon (The Gladius) the correct way, they screamed at the Soldiers, who were trained to follow commands above instinct, too stab and the Soldiers did. Murder became mechanical. How can one see the hand of God in this? Yet it is events like this that are the PRIME mover for the great cultures of history, including the United States, that pushes nations to greatness and power.

So the next time someone asserts that you got your morals from God, no matter you believe in him/her/it or not, ask them if culture is a gift from god. Then ask them why they think that the greatest force to advance the killing ability of our species (culture) is a gift from god. And how in the name of the flying spaghetti monster is this divinely moral?


  1. says

    Plato destroyed the god-given morality argument fairly conclusively in ‘euthyphro’ centuries before the current crop of religions had been invented. It’s amazing how ignorant the faithful are, that they accept such obvious nonsense so readily.

  2. says

    PS – ‘On Killing’ is excellent. Richard Rhodes did a civilian-oriented book on the topic entitled ‘Why they kill’ which is also excellent. He makes some interesting extrapolations into how the SS / eisatzgruppen were socialized to mass-murder, using the same techniques. To me it has always seemed obvious that the case for morality being anything but a social construct + some instincts (and flimsy constructs, a that) is very weak, indeed. Oddly, as a moral nihilist – who sees no reason to behave in any particular way at all – I am more concerned with my behavior than many people I encounter who are sure they are behaving in accordance with a supernatural being’s arbitrary dictates. Of course, if I believed morality was a coherent concept, I’d argue that it’d be profoundly immoral to adopt a moral view based on a supreme being’s arbitrary dictates without first examining them. If you actually look at the morals of christianity, you’ll realize pretty quickly that christian teachings are profoundly immoral. You have collective guilt, arbitrary authority, a god who deceives its creations, and improper forgiveness.*

    (* I lack a term for this, so that’s the best I can do. What I mean by it is that it’s immoral for jesus to forgive all wrongs. If I wrong someone, the only person who has standing to forgive or not forgive is the victim. For jesus to come along and say ‘olly olly all in free, just because you believe in me!’ renders the idea of ‘wrong’ and ‘forgiveness’ completely incoherent.)

  3. daviddurant says

    If someone says that all morality must come from God and I think it’s worth the effort of offering an alternate point of view I direct the to the excellent Moral Minds which does an excellent job of proposing an evolutionary theory of morality.

    Of course they’d have to believe in evolution…

  4. domenico says

    On Killing is very good, but Grossman jumps the shark when he makes the case that Video Game/TV/Movie violence is conditioning our kids to kill in much the same manner that our soldiers are trained. (I can’t remember if it is On Killing or On Combat where he makes this claim).
    The facts are completely against him. According to FBI and Interpol statistics, violence in general, both in this country and around the world, has been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years (NOT because of exposure to media violence I hasten to add – I don’t know why this is so).

    • says

      And besides, IMO, video games are excellently (and usefully) unteaching people how to kill, since gameplay teaches you exactly all the wrong ways to fire a gun or wield a weapon. If you habituate yourself with video games, and don’t train for real, you will actually be a worse shot and a worse fighter than if you never picked up a weapon in your life.

      But as to the desensitization thesis, you are right, the data don’t back that up. The problem is that people already learned to disassociate play from reality millions of years ago. That’s why violent movies don’t make people into killers either, nor did playing “cowboys and indians” fifty years ago. To get any of that to work you have to also dehumanize the target, and that’s the one thing video games don’t effectively do, because no one thinks a guy they are face to face with is actually anything like a robot image on a screen.

      By contrast, look at how effective Nazi propaganda was at making killers of people, by actually trying to convince them that Jews were subhuman vermin. Video games don’t really ever try to change your beliefs about reality (and if they did, there would be a lot of vocal and valid hoopla about it, as there was for the Left Behind: Eternal Forces game, which does come close to Nazi propaganda against a group of real people, although it falls short of being anywhere near effective in that respect, since it’s so ridiculous and one dimensional).

      The only other method is training people in justifiable necessity (e.g. “killing sucks, but here are the situations where you have to do it…”), which does not dehumanize the target. Then by habituating a situational procedure you get the effect Grossman is talking about. But that, of course, only works if you want moral soldiers in the long run, who by and large won’t just go killing anyone you want, whenever.

  5. says

    Good article. It is noticeable that the ‘classic’ way of training soldiers to kill – by indoctrinating them that the enemy are subhuman monsters who torture captives, eat babies and are generally evil – doesn’t usually last long in combat, when the soldiers are faced with other young men who look much like them (although this may also help to explain why such slaughter was easier for Europeans in Africa and the Americas, because the people were so different, both in skin colour and in culture, I don’t think it would have happened so easily without the church actively encouraging it).

    On the broader point about morality coming from god, almost everyone I debate this with ends up using the argument “just because”, as there is literally nothing to back it up with.

  6. had3 says

    I merely point out that the bible approves of slavery, that the person I’m talking to does not (presumably…if they do, there are bigger issues), and then point out that they’ve made a moral decision to reject an acceptable biblical moral position and they did it without intervention from god.
    If they refer to other passages that purport to deny slavery, I then point out that they’ve made a moral decision between to biblically supported and contradictory positions and again, done without god.

  7. kevinalexander says

    As a person who accepts the theory of evolution, I interpret the above situation in a certain way. Grossman leads me to believe that the majority of individuals are endowed by their ancestry with a imbued, instinctual prohibition against killing people. This seems to be a logical consequence of our species growing up in small kin-groups. Everyone you were likely to meet was related to you, so it’s most likely in a person’s best interest to avoid killing members of one’s tribe during conflicts as it would lessen the overall survivability of the group.

    Actually the prohibition against killing only works for members of the in group for reasons you explain above. All historical, prehistorical and current anthropological evidence as well as evolutionary principles suggest that when two groups live side by side then the one that is eager to kill his neighbour will get the resources and so his genes will flourish. The ones he doesn’t kill he rapes and again his genes flourish.

    Your brain has a large area dedicated to facial recognition so you can tell right away who to care for and who to kill. The first human, before he invented tools much less weapons, had all the physical equipment needed, a grasping hand and an apes shoulder joint, to stoop to pick up a rock and dash the strangers head in. You don’t teach toddlers to throw things, you have to teach them not to.

    Grossman has it backwards. The reluctance to kill is modern, it comes from absorbing the idea that all men are brothers and are included in the in group. Military training and George Zimmerman paranoia gets you to unlearn that so you can go back to your natural self.

    Remember that evolution is not good or evil, there’s just success or failure for genes.

    Read Steven Pinker, especially ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ The argument goes for seven hundred pages with the data included.

  8. kevinalexander says

    My post was running on so I stopped before I made my main point. I agree with you. Morality isn’t god given, it evolved. The face recognition part of our visual cortex comes in very handy to know who’s your daddy and when negotiating reciprocal altruism.

  9. Didaktylos says

    Actually, I don’t think it was the Romans who worked out that ordinary humans could be trained into being killers. (The Romans never invented a damn thing – their genius lay in taking things others had invented and developing them in ways their inventors couldn’t; the famous gladius was invented by the Spanish Celts, for example). It was actually the Spartans (traditionally Lycurgus) who invented the concept – what the Romans did was to apply this idea to a citizen army rather than an aristocratic elite.

    • says

      I don’t think it was the Romans who worked out that ordinary humans could be trained into being killers.

      That’s correct, the idea of training an army to engage in systematic situational behavior as a unit originates with the Greeks (so far as we know). But probably not the Spartans, who appear to have only adopted the technique after they got their asses kicked by it; since historians now believe the tactic was developed by the Argives and the Spartans quickly adopted it once they realized it was more effective than anything they had to send against it.

      However, formation fighting and shield walls long predate this. But the set of habitual behaviors that makes the phalanx operate like a machine was the innovation; because it required continual peacetime training (as well as expensive equipment). The Romans just adapted and improved on it (after additional tactical developments by the Macedonians and Greeks).

      However, the phalanx wasn’t in fact a killing machine. The aim of it (originally) was to produce a rout, not a slaughter. The Romans are indeed the ones who turned it into a killing machine (the most famous example being the brilliant, if horrific, tactical adaptation of the geometry of phalanx formation fighting to annihilate the forces of Boudicca by Paulinus).

      It’s worth bringing up a different analogy: the Athenian naval crew training (which later became standard for everyone with a navy in the Med), which involved teaching the rowers a system of coordinated behaviors to carry out mechanically on command, which after continual drilling, they could do perfectly, the result of which would be mass death among one or more enemy ship’s crews whom the rowers might never even see until after the deed was done. The ancient equivalent of “push a button” warfare.

      The Romans never invented a damn thing

      That’s a modern myth (and one that trades on old racist ideas like “Italians can’t think for themselves but swarthy Greeks could”). The Romans were as inventive as the Celts and Greeks. They were also, as you note, brilliant at picking up good ideas. Thus they adopted, disseminated and perfected the inventions of the Celts and Greeks. And added many ideas of their own.

      It’s hard to tease most of this out, though, because the Roman Empire saw a blurring of distinctions between who counted as a “Roman” or not (it was a melting pot, just like the U.S., in which eventually it was no longer predominately Italians comprising the citizenry), and didn’t document who invented what (e.g. the pin-and-cylinder padlock appears to be an Italian invention, and a rather brilliant one at that, but who knows, since Italy had had Greeks in it, and Italians had been intermarrying with Greeks, for centuries already; one of those things that makes “Italians vs. Greeks” largely a false distinction to begin with).

      Moreover, the seeming appearance of more inventions from Celts and Greeks will have been a statistical artifact: the Romans only had a significantly inventive culture for about five hundred years, from 200 BC to 300 AD, with a relatively small population; the Greeks, by contrast, had exploded with inventions in the preceding four hundred years, and both the Greeks and the Celts vastly outnumbered Romans in total population size (Celtic tribes extending then all the way from Britain and Spain to Bulgaria and even Turkey…the Galatians Paul the Apostle writes to are Hellenized Celts). Thus even with the same per capita rate of invention among all three groups, Romans still will not have invented nearly as many things (for lack of time and people to have done so).

      We also shouldn’t make any distinction between invention and significant improvement. Jews (or Syrians) most likely invented glassblowing, and Egyptians before them had invented glass itself, but the Romans invented plate glass windows, adapting the Egyptian and Judeo-Syrian technologies to create something even more significantly new and important than glassblowing had already been to glassmaking. The sheet glass window created a revolution in heating and lighting technology, because now you could have heated sunlit rooms (which before then had been an impossibility) and solar heated rooms (because glass allows the heat of sunlight in, but keeps the warm air that it produces from leaving), a huge advance in heating efficiency.

      And yet, picking up on that Roman technology (and the new demand for it), it was Germans who produced the largest sheet glass factories and traded their manufactures south to the Romans. So people are just innovative. It can’t really be pegged to one single culture. At most, perhaps we can say that some cultures are more encouraging of inventiveness (e.g. Greeks) than others (e.g. Egyptians), but even that is not “either/or” but only a difference of degree (e.g. the Egyptians invented plenty of things).

      • says

        The main point I was trying to make is that the Romans successful application of tactics that directly improved the percentage of their regular army who would kill efficiently in combat was a driving force in the success at both their society and overcome the Grossman predisposition to not murder.

      • says

        Richard you also bring up a great point. Buy breaking down the act of killing, you improve the ease of the act. Take WWI machine gun teams and armor tasks. In a tank fight, the loader, gunner, driver, and commander split responsibility and their combat effectiveness shoots through the roof.

        As a commander, I would locate a target, identify it and begin the fire command before passing it to my gunner with the press of a button. He would see the target render in Infrared for 1 or 2 seconds before firing. The whole process is designed to be quick and lowers any feelings of personal guilt. A repetive task makes you numb to it. The first engagement of the day, even in practice takes the longest because you employ your entire brain. But then it becomes almost reflex.

  10. says

    The Romans never invented a damn thing
    what the Romans did was to apply this idea to a citizen army rather than an aristocratic elite

    That “application” was quite an invention.

  11. David Hart says

    Can I be a terrible pedant? It’s ‘rout’, not ‘route’ (though that’s easy for me to say as we pronounce those two words differently from each other in the UK).

    Other than that, I see someone’s got here before me with the Pinker – though another important point from that book is that in pre-state societies the high body counts come not from battles where the opposing sides are alert and evenly matched, but from cowardly massacres where you sneak into a village at night and murder everyone in their sleep, or ambushes and ambuscades where you try to kill your enemy as they travel and before they are aware you are there.

  12. alexmartin says

    I was a professional soldier, 3 1/2 U.S. Army, 82nd Abn. I know something of killing [“the enemy”]. What I can glean thus far of the article is an impressively sussed-out presentation of circularity in argument: Troops don’t wanna kill because they don’t wanna kill.

    Yep. Dat be soooooo darn true. Yeah, and, what does all that prove?

    Getting back to the original premise, that no God was needed for the inculcation of “morality” in the human ethos, hey, ‘dja watch chimps in the wild, say on PBS or some shit?

    They eat each other.
    You dig?

    So, how swell it was that we learned that it’s best not to just hunt each other down, troupe or tribe, to just each each other.
    That would probably be “immoral”, yes?

    Oops, my bad, AGAIN!– there are folks in this world who do just that. Curiouser or curiouser…

    So those good folk of Papua New Guinea or the Amazon jungle or Easter Island for that matter, did they ‘know’ it was wrong to engage in cannibalism? Did the Donner party?

    If you care or dare to answer that question, I’d then ask (of you inescapable Moral/Situational Relativists all)–who the hell are you to judge?
    Feel me? Get your damn story straight: if there is no “God”, there is no true, real, universal “morality”; you cannot argue against morality while simultaneously arguing for morality as it seems to benefit your argument.

    I remind you: you are a simple terrestrial mammalian organism under internal compulsion to survive, and nothing more.

    Anything else you may glom onto that condition is, as per Darwin, mere gloss.

    • domenico says

      “I remind you: you are a simple terrestrial mammalian organism under internal compulsion to survive, and nothing more.”

      By this one statement you destroy your own argument. We so much more than a “simple terrestrial mammalian organism”. With the growth of our brains, we have the ability to pass on information not only to our direct contacts but to people who are distant from us both in time and in physical space.
      We have the capacity to examine our own actions, and to change our behavior if we as a society decide that such behavior is harmful. We no longer condone slavery, although in the past we considered it natural. Isolated pockets of slavery still exist, but the vast majority of all societies condemn that practice. “God” did not tell us that slavery was wrong. The Christian/Judeo/Islamic God certainly did not condemn slavery. We, as a society of human beings, decided that slavery was wrong.
      That’s just one example of a practice that was never condemned by Western religion that was nevertheless condemned by people as societies became larger and the interdependence of different societies became, and becomes, more and more important.
      Even in chimp societies, they rarely kill within a kinship group. Humans have the capacity to redefine and promulgate larger and more inclusive definitions of kinship groups – to the benefit of more and more individuals.
      This is done in spite of “God” or religion. Sure, religion will jump on the bandwagon once the priesthood figures out that to continue fighting the trend is detrimental to their own well-being; but it is the needs of society, and the capacity of the individual to understand and accept those needs, that ultimately determines the moral stance.

      • says

        The above hit on the point that I wanted to. Apes don’t often kill inside their own Kin Group.

        I don’t think my argument is circular. I take the Grossman principle, “Humans have a documented instinctual aversion to killing.” And I made the observation that this instinct can be subverted by individual actors and society in general; in addition to persons born with the mental wiring to not feel this instinct.

        Thus, I submit that if morals were god given then why is this innate morality described by Grossman not evenly distributed. I would think that a trait that added to our species via a supernatual actor would not express itself like we observe.

        Humans by and large don’t want to kill, troops do because we are trained to and societies do that training. Civilizations that are better at focusing lethal force at their enemies and not at themselves succeed while societies that focus violence inward die.

        Alex, your argument about apes and early humans killing within their own tribes has no merit because we are a social species. We succeed not on the strength of an individual but on the collective strength of the group. The morality that Grossman describes appears to me as a natural adaptation to increasing the survivability of the group. This does not discount the fact that all social animals do have the tendency to produce “lone wolfs” who are statistically more violent in order to make up for a lack of group security.

        Cannibalistic tribes strengthens my argument, not yours. Since such practices are contained within specific tribes, societies, and cultures I would argue that Cannibalism is those cases are socially learned behaviors which is not either an expression of evolved or god given morality but rather a subversion of both. I would refer you to further reading on how dehumanizing other societies enables us to kill.

        The actions of the Donner party is a separate issue since it was a survival question and from the Grossman point of view would not be an issue. The people they ate were mostly dead before being eaten so it becomes an expression of survival to eat them, if rather not encouraged by our culture.

        Morality, I argue, is a conversation of sorts between evolved behaviors and cultural (learned) behaviors. We can determine that certain cultural values are more or less moral (as argued by Sam Harris) based on the change on a spectrum of total happiness and suffering of individuals. But, again, my basic point is that if or morals came from God then they would be better distributed that they are now and societies would not be the prime mover along the spectrum.

        I am not simply an ape, I am a evolved social ape who has had the luck to enter into a society that is relatively moral. This ape has had its evolved aversion to killing subverted in a controlled fashion in service of that moral society. Because of my conditioning, I am more apt to worry about the survival of my group rather than that of self, and I like it that way.

  13. says

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