Morals & Rights

First, a rant

Where do morals come from?

Where do my morals come from?

Why are people immoral?

Objective Morality vs. Subjective Morality

Evolution of Morality

What are rights?

Where do rights come from?

Preventative Law vs. Reactionary Law


First, a rant:

It never ceases to amaze me when religious people claim that morals come from God. "How do you know right from wrong if you don't believe in God?" they ask. "What stops you from robbing and murdering people?". I always want to ask in return: "Do you refrain from robbing and murdering innocent people only because God forbids it? Meaning, if God approved of it, you'd do it? God approves of slavery in the Bible (Ephesians 6:5). Do you approve of slavery? God approves of rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Do you approve of rape? No? Why not? Are you saying you disagree with God on the morality of slavery and rape? How dare you contradict God! On your knees, sinner!"


Where do morals come from?

I don't really know, but my guess is that morals come from a combination of reason and sympathy.

Almost everyone on the planet dislikes being the victim of theft, robbery, physical assault, injury, rape, confinement, humiliation, and deceit. If we do those things to someone, we'll hurt them somehow. The understanding that our actions can cause people to suffer combined with our emotion of sympathy gives us the basis of morality. It's what makes the idea of hurting someone else repulsive. Those who have no conscience, such as sociopaths and psychopaths, are immoral to their cores because they are missing a critical component of morality: the ability to feel compassion and guilt.


What are my morals?

My little book of morals is very short. In fact, the foundation of my morality can be encapsulated by one line:

1) Do not cause others to suffer without a good reason. 2) If practical, help those who are suffering.

Obviously there's lots of room for debate on what constitutes a "good reason" and when something is "practical", so I prefer to use my judgment on a case-by-case basis rather than saying "I always do this" or "I never do that". There are cases when I think it's ethical to kill innocent people for money, and cases when I think it's moral to rob someone at gunpoint and kill them if they try to defend themselves. There are also cases when I think it's ethical to kill living, breathing babies and torture someone until they tell you what you want to know. Of course, such hypothetical cases are rarely encountered in real life, but they can exist.


Why do people knowingly do immoral things?

The short answer is apathy. They don't care if they cause others discomfort, pain, or loss.

The main reason people knowingly do immoral things is because the immoral act quickly and efficiently satisfies their needs. It's a lot more efficient to steal other people's stuff than to spend time and energy working for it yourself. It's more efficient to drive off than to call the police and ambulance after you've accidentally hit a pedestrian. And if you're having a dispute with a stranger who's threatening to sue you, it's more efficient to kill him than to sort things out. Dr. Freud's terms of id and superego apply here: the id portion of our psyche is selfish, primitive, and utterly immoral. The id has no regard for anyone else and drives behavior that satisfies immediate needs. This is where our impulse to be immoral comes from. Our superego, however, is where our morality and social conditioning resides. The superego censors the id's impulsive nature by permitting only socially-acceptable behavior. Those without a well-developed superego succumb to the id's temptations and wind up committing immoral acts.

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Objective Morality vs. Subjective Morality

Despite the near-universality of basic morals, they remain nothing more than a collection of preferences, opinions, and ideas that tell us how we ought to behave. We believe it's wrong to murder and steal because we personally wouldn't like it if those things were done to us. We believe it's okay to shake someone's hand when we first meet them because we don't have a problem when someone does it to us. But what if someone takes great offense at any attempt at physical contact? Or... what if someone doesn't mind if you steal from them? Or punch them in the head repeatedly? Such people do exist... they enjoy being humiliated, violated, and physically abused. In their opinion, it is not immoral to do those things. So although our morality is natural, meaning it evolved over time as a social lubricant, it is not objective by any means. No one can prove that murder is immoral because morality is based on opinions and preferences which are inherently subjective. Therefore objective morals not only do not, but cannot exist.


Evolution of Morality

For thousands of years, prehistoric humans that perpetrated violence or theft on a regular basis were either driven out of the tribe or killed. The humans that remained were the ones who didn't have a genetic predisposition towards robbery, rape, and murder. It's a classic case of survival of the fittest, only in this case "fittest" refers not to physical fitness but to how well an individual fits into society. The same can be done with dogs or cats to breed out the aggressive ones.

A society where violent crimes are socially permitted will tear itself apart very quickly, which explains why there are no such societies anywhere in the world. If any have ever existed, they've self-destructed. But chances are, indiscriminately violent people would've never coalesced into a society in the first place. The societies that survive are ones where public opinion says it's wrong to hurt others without a good reason. This is why murder, assault, theft, and robbery are illegal in every long-lived society on the planet. As our understanding of morality became more complex and the number of people in our tribes increased, we started writing our morals down and prescribing punishments for violations of these morals. These became laws. Eventually people invented the idea of rights to describe what people may and may not legally do.


What are rights?

Rights are a set of privileges that authorities grant to citizens. Usually a right is a promise by authorities to not imprison or fine you if do whatever the right gives you permission to do. For example, in China, you have the right to criticize a dish at a restaurant but you don't have the right to criticize the government. In the US, you have the right to criticize the government but you don't have the right to kill gays and Jews. In Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan, you have the right to kill gays and Jews but you don't have the right to criticize Islam. Rights vary drastically from place to place because they are man-made and granted by the local government or whoever is in charge.

People often speak of rights-violations by oppressive regimes, but technically there's no such thing. If I'm in Afghanistan and the Taliban executes me for not praying, they will not be violating my rights. If I am imprisoned and beaten in North Korea for not bowing to a statue of Kim Jong Il, North Korean authorities will not be violating my rights. And when the Nazis robbed, tortured, and killed Jews by the millions, they did not violate the rights of a single Jew. How can this be? Simple: What the government gives, the government can take away. It can simply cancel people's rights or never give them out in the first place. Under the Taliban's rule, I have no right to freedom of religion. Under North Korean rule, I have no right to walk past a statue of Kim Jong Il without bowing to it. And under Nazi rule, Jews had no rights at all. How can non-existent rights be violated? They can't. Therefore, governments and dictators generally never violate anyone's rights.


Where do rights come from?

In the United States Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers spoke of "unalienable rights" that are given to us by our "Creator". One sentence later, they contradict themselves. They say "to secure these rights, Governments are..." Wait a minute! Hold everything. Why would unalienable rights need securing? They're unalienable! That means they cannot be taken away. If something cannot be taken away... why does it need to be secured? Clearly, the Founding Fathers meant rights should not be taken away. All rights are alienable. Throughout history plenty of people have had their rights taken away for no good reason.

The Founding Fathers also said those unalienable rights come from our Creator. Obviously I don't believe in a Creator so I don't believe in Creator-given rights. As far as natural rights go... there's no such thing. How can rights be natural when humans invented the very idea of "rights"? It's like saying chess or prison is natural. Rights are completely artificial because first and foremost, rights are ideas created by the human mind and anything that is a deliberate product of the human mind is, by definition, artificial. If there are no God-given rights and no natural human rights, that leaves only legal rights. Therefore, all rights are legal rights, and legal rights come from political authorities. In short, rights are granted to us by whoever happens to be in charge, be it a king, a dictator, a government, or an armed militia of religious militants.


Preventative Law vs. Reactionary Law

A good law is not a law that accurately describes how the guilty are to be treated and how the victims are to be compensated. A good law is one which prevents people from becoming victims in the first place. This is why I'm a strong advocate of preventative law. Rather than solving a problem quickly and efficiently, it's better to not have the problem at all.

Consider the following cases: A father intentionally lets his 2-year-old son play with a loaded handgun. A drunk driver goes 90 MPH at night on wet roads in heavy fog. A psychotic sniper decides to have some "harmless" fun by shooting imaginary targets a foot above the heads of children on a playground. Should any of those people be punished? If you're an advocate of reactionary law, then you can't say for sure. You have to know whether anything bad happened. You have to ask "Are there any victims?" If nothing bad happened in all three cases, then technically those are all victimless crimes. No one has been hurt and no one intended to hurt anyone either. So if we go by reactionary law, no crimes have been committed and no one should be imprisoned. I oppose that. I think we should punish irresponsible behavior that endangers people's lives. We should go by preventative law, in which case they have all committed crimes and must be punished for their negligence and carelessness.

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