Some Major Topical Political Issues in UK

Right and Wrong - What Is Morality?

(Originally written 16th February 2011, with later amendments)

My country is the world; my religion, to do good.
Thomas Paine

I have been asked to explain how I as an atheist can have a sound basis for my sense of right and wrong, and for what I mean by morality. This page is an attempt to do that. I start with a simple statement of basic principles:

  1. I believe, with John Stuart Mill (see his On Liberty published 1859), that each being should be free to do whatever he wishes in so far as this does not (significantly) impinge directly on the freedom or welfare of others, and this consideration should at all times be paramount.
  2. I believe that it is the duty of a civilised society to so organise and conduct itself that the strong are constrained to observe the above principle in their dealings with the weak.
  3. I believe it is the further duty of a civilised society to provide protection and support to those unable to provide for themselves the necessary conditions for a healthy and pleasant life, in so far as this is possible.
  4. I believe it is the duty of each citizen, in the interests of a stable, contented society, to behave in accordance with the above principles, and to do what he/she reasonably can to make life pleasant for others.


For the purpose of clarity it seems worth devoting a paragraph or two to discussing what I mean by morality. The word "morality" means different things to different people. Most people seem to have quite a fixed idea as to its meaning and many have difficulty in understanding that their conception of morality is different from that of others.

To me, morality means following the axioms spelled out above in one's dealings with other people. This includes such matters as honesty, respect for others and personal kindness in relationships. To be quite specific in my disagreement with some definitions, in my opinion morality, sex and religion are three entirely separate subjects with nothing whatever to do with each other (and the latter two are not in any way the business of legitimate government).

With this definition, government should always act morally itself and be on the side of morality in others. I do not mean by this that every action which would be considered (on this definition) to be immoral should be subject to legal condemnation, although many such acts should, and only immoral acts should be so condemned. On the other hand, it would be immoral, in a very minor way, for someone to refuse to help a person in need of relatively minor assistance, such as directions to find a destination, but that is obviously not the sort of minor matter with which the law, or government in any guise, should concern itself.

Religion and Morality

Since so many people claim that morality for them is based on their religious beliefs, it is perhaps worth discussing why I do not think this is morality at all. A moral act (or a moral refraining from action) is something done (or not done) because this improves life (often in a quite minor way) for someone else, and acts of this kind make for a happier society for everyone, as they do in more serious cases.

If a so-called moral decision is based on religious belief rather than on thoughtfulness for others, then this is simply following some dogmatic assertion, a command followed without thought. That is the action of an amoral automaton, not a consequence of morality.

Most if not all major religions would support the statements I have made in the panel above, but most also add other rules which I would not support and some of which I would consider to be immoral or at least, depending on circumstances, capable of being immoral, while others I would not consider have any moral implications.

My conclusion, therefore, is that religion and morality have nothing whatever to do with one another. People can be very moral or immoral regardless of what, if any, religious beliefs they may hold and of how rigidly they live by those beliefs.

Society or Individual?

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives eight different definitions for the word "society", applicable in various different contexts. Two of them are relevant here:

  • 2. The system of customs and organisation adopted by a body of (esp. human) individuals for harmonious and interactive coexistence or for mutual benefit, defence, etc.
  • 7. A body of people forming a community or living under the same government.

What we are discussing here is the nature and detail of the system of customs and organisation and the second definition specifies the meaning of "society" we require, I have quoted the former because of its inclusion of the purpose of the customs and organisation adopted, i.e. for harmonious and interactive coexistence or for mutual benefit, defence, etc.

It seems obvious that without the individuals who are its members, a society cannot exist as anything real, but is at most just an abstract concept, whereas individuals can, and sometimes do, exist and survive without society of any kind.

Some political systems, mainly those of a totalitarian nature, maintain that individuals are of relatively little, or even no, importance, and their interests must always be subservient to those of society as a whole, which they usually equate to the state and its government. This view seems to be to be in total denial of fairly obvious facts, appropriate only to a colony of insects such as ants (even elephants, whales and meerkats have evolved beyond such an approach). Society consists of individuals, each of whom has his or her own personal needs and desires. Society as a whole has no needs or desires of is own, and exists only as the sum of its parts, in other words, it exists simply to serve the needs and wishes of the people who comprise it. Certainly there are circumstances when the needs or wishes of an individual or of a minority group may conflict with those of the majority, but then the purpose of government is to resolve those issues in a way that considers properly the rights of both sides, not simply to side with the majority (or of a government department) while overriding conflicting interests

Society and Individuals

It must not be thought, however, that each individual can simply live his own life without taking any notice of the needs or wishes of others, since we cannot exist for long in such isolation. The was put very well by Jean M Auel in her book The Mammoth Hunters:

At times and under certain conditions individuals can be nearly autonomous. An individual can live alone and have no worry about rank, but no species can survive without interaction between individuals. The ultimate price would be more final than death. It would be extinction. On the other hand, complete individual subordination to the group is just as devastating. Life is neither static nor unchanging. With no individuality, there can be no change, no adaptation and, in an inherently changing world, any species unable to adapt is also doomed.

Humans in a community, whether it is as small as two people or as large as the world, and no matter what form the society takes, will arrange themselves according to some hierarchy. Commonly understood courtesies and customs can help to smooth the friction and ease the stress of maintaining a workable balance within this constantly changing system. In some situations most individuals will not have to compromise much of their personal independence for the welfare of the community. In others, the needs of the community may demand the utmost personal sacrifice of the individual, even to life itself. Neither is more right than the other, it depends on the circumstances, but neither extreme can be maintained for long, nor can a society last if a few people exercise their individuality at the expense of the community.

Some Personal Examples

It has been suggested that I should end by recounting a few of the minor actions I take from time to time and to explain my reasons in each case, so here are a few. In every case I not not claiming any special merit - very many other people do the same things, probably with the same motivation:

  1. As a driver I occasionally stop to allow one or more pedestrians to cross the road. Most frequently this is at a road junction when pedestrians crossing a side road in any case have the right of way (It is aways people, not vehicles who have rights of way or rights of any kind - being a driver gives extra responsibilities, not extra rights, as compared with pedestrians). Sometimes it is simply someone waiting to cross a busy main road which I am driving along. In this case, whether I stop or not depends on a variety of factors, such as whether it is safe to stop, whether it would then be safe for the pedestrian to cross, even how urgent my own journey is. The probability of my stopping then is increased for some categories of pedestrian (more likely for what appears to be a more vulnerable person) and if the weather is bad. The point in each case is that a minor delay for me (and quite often for other motorists behind me) makes life significantly more pleasant for the pedestrian concerned.
  2. Again as a motorist, I frequently slow or even stop to allow another motorist to proceed, regardless of who has right of way. Examples of this are when there is a queue of traffic and someone is waiting to emerge from a side road, on a motorway again in heavy traffic, when someone ahead of me wants to pull out into the lane I am in, on roads with no room for moving vehicles travelling in opposite directions to pass each other, etc. Exactly the same reasoning applies as to the previous example.
  3. My daughter has reminded me of an example which I had completely forgotten. We were together at an underground station in London many years ago, when we came across a very frail man trying to mount a staircase while carrying a fairly heavy suitcase. He was quite unable to get up the stairs, while other people hurried past and ignored his plight. My daughter tells me I spent about ten minutes getting him (he needed help even without the suitcase) and his suitcase up the stairs. The significance of the delay to me was very minor, but to the man I helped it was apparently a major benefit, and so it seemed to me to be an obvious thing to do. My daughter was a young child at the time and so unable to contribute.

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