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Reflections on Ethics 42
Morality: More than Religion

by Ryan Kennedy

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The idea of god has provided man a great service in that it has allowed him a crutch to use during times of moral discord. It allows a religious man to claim that his actions are ethical despite overwhelming dissidence. In Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, Euthyphro thereby justifies accusing his father of murder by saying that Zeus had similarly risen against his own father.

It has been argued that, because god supposedly created all that we know to exist, he also created the idea of morality and it is he who defines ethics. Therefore, if your god was said to have declared an action moral, this alone should be enough support of the morality of the action. God is seemingly the ultimate standard whose moral laws should guide our behavior.

However, this argument quickly falls apart upon closer scrutiny. It implies that, because they do not believe in god, atheists have no basis for their morals and are therefore incapable of being moral. It seems that, were this so, atheists would have no remorse in carrying out heinous crimes; prisons should be overflowing with these people who are absent of any morals. However, in prisons across the country, atheists are not only in the minority (as they are in the world at large), but are nearly absent. In fact, atheists make up less than one half of one percent of the total prison population, and are even non-existent in many of the country’s prisons.[1]

Atheists must then have their own standard by which they decide how to act; there must be a way to determine ethics other than God.

Although only speculation, the reason for the lack of nonreligious people in prison could be that those in prison believe that, by repenting their sins, they will live eternally in heaven; they want to believe that they have only forfeited one part of their infinite existence by committing crimes. Contrarily, strong atheists know that their life on earth is not simply a test or passage into heaven, but is their only chance at life.

Then it might be possible that atheists base their morals on punishment, determining their actions by whether they will result in unwanted consequences. However, were Congress to pass a law allowing murder, most atheists would not kill the first person they see, even though there would be no legal punishment. This implies that ethics for nonbelievers is more than simply equating immorality to punishment.

Perhaps the reason that atheists would not kill if murder were legalized is that by not killing others, they are actually feeding intrinsic motivations. While some people are afraid of even the sight of blood, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of people would be repulsed by killing another person. For those who do not mind ending another human’s life, they have another reason not to kill: if murder were common practice, they themselves would probably be dead very quickly. Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest not to slay people while walking down the street.

Here, ethics begins to take on another meaning. Maybe morality is not simply abiding by a “supreme law,” but is instead basing one’s actions on internal desires and motivations. Maybe morality is simply the egotism of human beings. Many people do not kill because they are either disgusted by it or because of the fear that they themselves will be killed. Then killing is wrong, not simply because god said it was, but because people do not want to kill each other.

Given, there are still a great many people that claim that they abstain from murder because it was divinely commanded that “thou shalt not kill.” However, our new definition of morality can be expanded even to them. Although they define their ethical standards by god, in reality they do not kill because they do not want to. If they murdered another person, they believe that they would go to hell instead of experiencing the eternal bliss that would otherwise await them in heaven. Alternatively, they do not kill because they do not want to disobey their God. Whether for these or other reasons, even the most religious people therefore base their morality on internal motivations.

This idea of morality, however, does not define universal ethical standards, especially when more complex issues arise; morality becomes an individual idea. For example, it would be a difficult decision for any person to decide whether they should steal some medicine that would save their son’s life. Some people might have to decide whether the possible legal consequences and divine punishment (“Though shalt not steal.”) outweigh forfeiting the life of their son. While many people would gladly steal to save their son’s life, some might not want to jeopardize their admission into heaven. Now it seems that god is not a supreme standard to base all actions but is instead simply another addition to the many intrinsic factors that cause people to act.

The idea that morality is based on internal motivations and is therefore an individual idea explains why debates on ethics have been present for thousands of years: different people have different ideas of what morality is. Unfortunately, this also means that there will never be an ultimate guide to right and wrong. Maybe Euthyphro was moral in prosecuting his father – at least according to his own standards. Similarly, it is possible for atheists to be moral because their standards simply do not involve god.

Although ethical debates will continue indefinitely, one thing is certain: religion is not needed for people to be moral.


  1.  Response to "Christians vs atheists in prison investigation." http://www.adherents.com/misc/adh_prison2.html