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Morality Can Only Be Understood In Terms of the Supernatural

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 11/1/2015 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 10 months ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 234 times Debate No: 81873
Debate Rounds (3)
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Morality need not be a byproduct of religion. We have innate moral instincts in our nature and can understand morality scientifically.

Debate Structure:
Round 1 - Confirmation
Round 2 - Initial Argument
Round 3 - Rebuttal 1
Round 4 - Rebuttal 2
Round 5 - Concluding Statements


Confirmation and proposal:

Sounds fun :D. "Morality Can Only Be Understood In Terms of the Supernatural" is such a bad topic to debate since there are obvious examples shown in the secular world today. Is that really a debate?

Define morality: "principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior." From that we can discern that this has to do with values and we see that society gives us values, of which religion is now only a part of. Thus lets debate this instead drawing from your wording (We have innate moral instincts in our nature and can understand morality scientifically.):

Do humans have innate moral instincts?

I'll position myself against you. Humans do not have moral instincts.
Debate Round No. 1


I wish to begin by apologizing to my opponent and anyone who may track this debate. I was hoping to do a five round debate and forgot to change the setting to five rounds. Sorry about that. Nevertheless I hope that it will a fruitful debate on a very difficult topic. I hope to demonstrate that human do indeed have innate moral instincts drummed into us by evolution and that social and cultural factors merely modulate our intrinsic morality.

Modern scientific advances have allowed us to know vastly more about the brain than ever thought possible even a few decades ago. As a result even the most nebulous and abstract concepts of human existence such as the how humans learn language to the issue at hand which is morality are now being assessed in terms of natural laws and associated scientific constructs rather than in the language of philosophical paradigms.

I'm sure we can all agree that moral codes throughout history have their underpinnings on the most basic and ubiquitous of human emotions. Emotions such as fear and empathy catered to in some way in every major moral code that has existed in recorded history from the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments with the associated Halachic Law to the the legal codes and social conventions of modern times. Not surprisingly, we can understand these emotions in terms of brain functions and evolutionary instincts. Another pillar on which moral codes stand is the faculty of decision making which like basic human emotions has been explained scientifically.

The fourth edition of The Cognitive Neurosciences includes papers on all these aspects on human thinking and how they are inherent in the human condition. Such is the interest and the new knowledge regarding human social functions that an entire section was dedicated to such matters called The Emotional and Social Brain. The last paper in this section is one by Joshua D. Greene called The Cognitive Neuroscience of Moral Judgement.[1] In this paper Greene remarks that studies conducted support the "dual process theory of moral judgment" which argues that utilitarian moral judgments are "enabled by controlled cognitive processes".[1] He then goes on to state that deontological judgments are the product of intuitive emotional responses which we know to be innate in humans.[1] Having established the link between morality and emotion the latter of which is well known to be an innate evolutionary characteristic of humans, we have already one good reason to think that morality is innate in humans.

Let us also consider the morality of animals. We understand now that there are moral codes among the different species in the animal kingdom. As far as we know, the intuitions of animals unlike those of humans are not modulated by cultural and religious conventions. Even our closest relatives the primates do not experience any cultural or religious modulations in their lives as far as we know.

A 2007 New York Times article published by Nicholas Wade summarizes findings made by biologists on the emotional intuitions of chimpanzees including how they will drown in attempt to save fellow chimps from that fate.[2] The article also cites the work of biologist and eminent student of primate behaviour Frans de Waal. De Waal argues that while he does not believe that monkeys possess morality (which I would differ on) he does concede that the social behaviour of primates provided the evolutionary underpinnings for human morality.[2] He adds that only apes (our closest relatives among primates) possess the quality of empathy aside from us.[2]

I just mentioned a word which many would agree is the emotional underpinning of morality. That word is empathy. Morality revolves around behaviours and the reactions of other entities to them. In his 2007 Time magazine article called What Makes Us Moral, Jeffery Kluger echoes the sentiment about the inextricable link between empathy and its sister concept if you will morality.[3] In this article, Kluger goes on to discuss the observations on chimpanzees for the aforementioned Frans de Waal.

He also discusses the work of Russian primatologist Nadia Kohts. She raised a chimpanzee in her home and she noticed that when she pretended to cry, the chimpanzee would intend to comfort her.[3] I find this empathetic interaction between different species interesting for two reasons. First of all, we almost universally consider to be moral the act of consoling a fellow human even if we don't always do it. Clearly primates know this to be a good act and they do not need to be admonished into it. Secondly, it shows our primate ancestors have a very refined sense of natural emotional literacy which was quite clearly transmitted to us. These natural emotional intuitions form the underpinning of our morality.

Staying on the topic of evolution I would infer that readers of this debate would be interested in the views of Charles Darwin himself on human morality and whence it came. Darwin argues in this follow-up to The Origin of Species that there is no fundamental difference between the basic mental faculties of men and those of the "higher mammals".[4] Darwin also discusses common instincts between man and even the "lower animals". Such parallels would include the desire for self-preservation, love for mothers by offspring and sexual love and desire.[4]

Let me offer an example that will underscore the point that I wish to make. Barring the presence of mental illnesses, all humans develop some kind of sexual desire. We even go through puberty, have sexual arousal, have dreams about a special someone among other natural and sometimes even involuntary stimuli. The only modulations that challenge the objective good of sexual desire of some kind are either religious, (celibacy among priests for example) genital mutilations (take the eunuchs in antiquity) and mental illness. (for example Asperberger's Syndrome) Humans instinctively know it is moral to mate at some point as do animals and there is no greater witness to the natural objectivity of that moral precept than the very stimuli and growth of the human body.

Another example is the consumption of food. All animals as well as humans consume food of some kind be it other animals or plants, vegetables and fruits. All animals including human beings eat and place it among their highest priorities. Hence it can be objectively said that depriving one's self and others of food is morally reprehensible. Our own bodies would testify to the immorality of such an act by ceasing to perform their required functions. Of course, there are those who see nothing wrong in starving themselves but this is simply a product of their objective moral instincts being modulated by mental illness. Similarly, someone who starves others is having his or her moral instincts modulated by psychopathy and malignant narcissism among other conditions.

Another important point to ponder is the question of moral relativism. Is anything objectively right or wrong to humans? If moral relativism is true, there can be no objective morality and henceforth no intrinsic moral values in humans. Thus my next task will be to debunk the notion of moral relativism. Moral relativists argue that different cultures throughout history have had starkly contrasting moral codes and henceforth there exists no such thing as objective moral notions that humans come already endowed with. This worldview is problematic and fallacious multiple counts.

Moral relativism implicitly suggests that there can be no moral growth or as I'd rather term it, moral evolution. The very idea that there is no absolute right and wrong implies that there is no point in self-criticism and evaluation. Another indictment of moral relativism is the very fact that there exists any kind of moral discourse at all. It should also be added that moral relativists themselves are often the keenest to participate and state that it is absolutely true that there i no absolute truth.

The reality is that we have gone through a long process of moral evolution. Overtime we have had our moral instincts modulated by the passage of time. We have grown to realize that slavery is wrong, that human sacrifice is fruitless among other things. This metamorphosis of our moral literacy so to speak is could not have come from nothing. There can be no evolution from nothing. There can be no growth from nothing. Everything has a source and as far as morality is concerned that source is the innate morality of man. That same innate morality inherited from our evolutionary ancestors has constantly evolved into the prevailing moral conventions of today and will continue to evolve.

I hope that like me you are troubled by the fascinating question of where morality comes from. It is a question that has been asked form the beginning of time an numerous attempts have been made to answer it either in positive or negative. Until very recently however the concept of morality had been largely absent from the minds of eminent scientists and long considered the realm of philosophy. As I illustrated, there are two events in science that allowed morality to come into the scientific forefront. Those were the advent of evolution and the advent of neuroscience. One of their offspring is the science of morality which is in its infancy and still being weaned to a degree by philosophy as you can infer from my dissertation. However, there have been previously unfathomable advances and I have no doubt that one day we will understand that morality is innate in man. For now though debate must do.

[1] (pg. 987-999)
[4] (Descent of Man by Charles Darwi


ArrowofTime forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 2


Since my opponent has forfeited this round I wish to take this opportunity to express my enthusiasm regarding the topic of morality and how science is finally making headway in the field of values. I believe that as we have come to understand basic emotions scientifically and have been able to trace them back to our primate relatives and our common ancestors, I believe that we will understand morality scientifically one day. The study of human emotion and human thought processes was believed until recently to be purely metaphysical endeavor and that science had no bearing in. We can see nowadays that such a hypothesis has been fully debunked. In much the same way, the common consensus is that morality is purely a metaphysical topic totally alien from the rigors of science. We are in the opening stages of seeing this perception change and the next decades will likely lead to revolutionary discoveries and radically change our understanding of the human condition. I hope you are as excited about this prospect as I am.


ArrowofTime forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by izzyball 11 months ago
I'll admit I struggled to come up with the wording for the proposition here.
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