The Superfluity of Morality to explain Human Systems of Behavioral Expectations

This is an argument presented in response to a Facebook user named Adam Johnson who suggests emotions are not sufficient to account for human systems of behavioral expectations.


  • P1: Adam believes animals construct systems of behavioral expectations based on their emotions.
  • P2: Adam believes animals are not moral agents.
  • C1: Therefore, Adam believes a) systems of behavioral expectations do not require moral agency, and b) emotions are sufficient to explain systems of behavioral expectations. (P1 & P2)
  • P4: Adam believes humans have emotions.
  • P5: Adam believes humans have systems of behavioral expectations.
  • C2: Adam believes human emotions are a sufficient explanation for human systems of behavioral expectations. (C1 & P4 & P5)

Adam and others may respond in a rigorous syllogistic (or at least focused) form. All lengthy unfocused comments will be deleted.

A useful analogy is the movement of tectonic plates. We now have a fairly firm material explanation for why we have mountains, volcanoes and earthquakes. If someone were to add the explanation of an army of underground goblins on top of the tectonic plate explanation, that army of goblins would be superfluous since we already have a exhaustive explanatory theory at our disposal, i.e., tectonic plates. And even if we did not have a clear material mechanism to explain volcanoes and earthquakes, would we be justified in invoking an army of unevidenced underground goblins as a supplementary explanation? Conjuring up a magical, spiritual or moral realm on top of the material realm that itself already offers a comprehensive explanation of a particular phenomenon is intellectually dishonest.

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The Emotional Substrate Beneath Bloated Ontologies

We are most fundamentally emotional creatures, and the most fundamental realm of meaning is that of emotion. From the time we are infants, our emotional brains are busy sorting through these needy emotions and attempting to carve out a social identity, a set of things we can call “true”, and a code of behavior. But there is nothing as subjectively real as our emotions.

So we are compelled by these emotions to construct an edifice that can comfortably house our emotions by providing psychological, epistemological and moral frameworks over which we can then drape image, and respectably present ourselves to society.

Because the goal is to cloak our raw and muddled emotions under more presentable walls of definition, this enterprise is inherently illusory, and is most commonly self-delusional. Yet by the time we reach adulthood, we have constructed an elaborate edifice that, if matching the expectations of society, can assure our social well-being.

I’d like to deconstruct the various walls of meaning to expose the raw emotions that we often do not want to admit lie at the foundation of being.

  • Identity. This is the most transparent. Many realize that identity is static only where it is thought static. Personhood can change significantly over a lifetime. We say “this is who I am” at our peril. Constructing rigid walls of identity lock us into a self that forfeits a more colorful and fuller life. But, to avoid the swirling and persistent uncertainty and fear, our adolescent minds forge an identity that we often find hard to later modify. We begin to see the image that we have constructed upon our emotions as a rigid entity, and prior to our emotions. This self-delusion serves to maximize predictability and minimize risks, but it often leads to marginal lives. If we can recognize that it is emotions that are the substrate to our identities, and take measures to directly address those emotions rather than merely repainting the peeling facade the same color from time to time, life can become much more dynamic and enriching.

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Religious Reasoning

altruismYou’ve heard the saying “If there is no god, then everything is permitted.”

Let’s just go with the dubious assumption that any god that exists must be one that grants or withholds permission.
The statement then is a tautology. It is tantamount to saying “If there is no one granting or withholding permission, everything is permitted.” The utterer has said nothing, and nothing has been learned. At this juncture, there are 2 possible directions to take.

  1. Try to determine whether or not there is a “permissioner”.
  2. Start with the assumption that there must be behaviors that are granted or denied permission, then look for the “permissioner”.

Why start with the assumption in #2? The following statement I have heard far too many times, and seems to be the reason that #2 is the default starting point rather than #1.

“What would prevent you from being a mass murderer if you did not believe in god?”

This rhetorical question is disturbing for the following reasons.

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Jehovah And Rape

rapeImagine that your country is invaded or taken over by a group of religious fanatics. These fanatics enter your home, and point guns at you and your family. They give you a choice. You can either accept their god-based government, or be shot. You ask for a list of their divinely-inspired laws. Your 2 young daughters tremble with fear as you carefully read through each law. You eventually come to one that says…

Any adult male who rapes a young female that is not engaged must pay the father of the girl $51, after which he must marry the girl.

Upon reading this, would you…

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Scrapping Morality

To be an atheist is to be good for nothing. -Mark Twain

moralityI’ve scrapped morality. Not the concept of a code of behavior. Just the word morality. Here’s why.

Theists argue that the only source of an objective moral code would be a god. They then argue that, unless a moral code is objective, it has no value and renders subscribers to a subjective moral code amoral agents. So, the word morality has been inextricably attached to the notion of god. Those of us who reject the notion of an Abrahamic god are left feeling a bit immoral.

What’s an agnostic to do? I could launch a campaign to redefine the word morality as the gay community did the word queer. This would undoubtedly fail considering the bulk of literature that baptizes morality in theism.

Instead, let me concede the theistic connotations clinging to morality, and disparage this god-dependent morality as a notion that is incoherent, ignoble and valueless.

Let’s begin with the incoherence of the concept.
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No Morals

moralsI do not believe in objective morality.

This stance is not very popular. Having taken this stance, I cannot make statements such as the following.

  1. Hitler was evil.
  2. You shouldn’t intentionally hurt other people.
  3. You should live altruistically.

Because I deny objective morality, I cannot use terms such as “evil” or “righteous” in my description of people or actions. I am confined to an ontology that ends at my emotional response to people and their actions. The actions of Hitler make me extremely angry, but they were not evil actions. Attributing evil seems to be merely a human attempt to convert a subjective emotion into an objective quality. This conversion takes place in only in the mind. The term “evil” has no consistent definition, but rather vaguely maps onto emotional dispositions towards particular actions.
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Nonquestions And Assumptional Leaps

nonquestionsRavi Zacharias, a prominent Christian apologist has said “There are four fundamental questions in life; origin, meaning, morality and destiny.” He then goes on to suggest that only God is big enough to give a satisfactory answer to these questions. Watch Video

I’d like to address the status of these fundamental questions.
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