10/20/2012 09:26 am ET | Updated Dec 20, 2012

Where Does Morality Come From?

By contributing writer Zachary Young. Originally published in KidSpirit's Ethics and Morality issue.

What are morals and where do they come from? Is morality like the laws of physics, ironclad dicta from nature? Or is morality like language, where there is no "right answer" but different languages that different groups of people speak?

These are eternal questions with many answers. They have been intensely debated, from Aristotle to Kant to a bunch of college students in discussion at 5 a.m., when we all should have been studying. Today, much of the discourse is centered around the two most well-known paradigms: classical theism and atheism. The journey in this article, reflecting my own journey, attempts to cast off prejudices and seek the truth. I conclude with a more unconventional answer that at last, in my eyes, has satisfactorily integrated the answers to these questions with our intuition and rendered purpose to my life.

Before starting the journey, let us assume that the actions of Nazi Germany in the Holocaust were "wrong." Although this is often cited as a prototypical example of what is "wrong," it does not answer the question of what "wrong" really means, nor does it explain where "wrong" comes from. This is what I seek to do in this article.

where does morality come fromFor many years, the theistic moral paradigm, derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular, has been dominant in the canon of the West. Classically, morality is decreed by a supreme deity -- that is, it exists as a law in the same sense as the laws of physics. Much as the laws of physics follow from experiment, the laws of morality follow from interpretation of the canonical texts of the Bible and the Gospels.

However, as a result of human free will, morality has an important difference with physical laws. While it is impossible to violate the laws of nature, humans can violate moral laws. Although the law of gravity prevents us from jumping to the moon, we may choose whether to follow moral laws. However, by the theist tradition those traditions will be judged decisions in worlds to come.

Centrally, classical theism is universalist. In a universalist moral scheme, if two people have different opinions about the morality of an action, both cannot be right -- there's only one right answer. Similarly, if two cultures have different standards for morality, both cannot be correct (in fact, maybe both are incorrect!). This is just as if two people calculate the gravitational force between two objects differently: only one person can be correct, because there is only one answer.

The theist view is often critiqued for being irreconcilable with science. In return, backers of classical theism will attempt to reconcile it with science, often successfully. For argument's sake, this article will accept that classical theism may be reconciled with science; however, there are other key weaknesses of classical theism.

Man has discovered scientifically observable, testable and replicable explanations for many physical phenomena, ranging from gravity to genetics. In the case of gravity, our knowledge has progressed from an abstract sense of a force causing things to drop, to a simple mathematical formula given by Newton, to a better understanding of quantum and relativistic effects of gravity.

Moral laws cannot be tested in this sense. In the classical theist paradigm, moral laws result solely from the reading of one holy text. There are three major holy texts for Abrahamic theists: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. However, universalism decrees that, when they conflict on morality, they can't all be right! In classical theism, most people rely on the text that they have been taught from birth, but why should one accept blindly that the text that they are born with is correct and the others are wrong? Blind acceptance does not do anything to help humankind. Had Copernicus merely accepted that the universe rotated around the Earth, had the founding fathers accepted the political state of affairs in Colonial America, the physical and mental condition of mankind would be far worse. Moreover, the concept that one believes something just because their parents believe something is to me repulsive: one of the fundamental and good principles of our society is that one should be able to set a totally divergent course from his or her parents if he or she chooses, in order to lead a better life. Any religion that teaches blind acceptance of a tradition just because of parental belief is at loggerheads with this principle.

This is certainly not to say that the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran are without moral worth. The teachings of the prophets and their moral principles are certainly worth understanding and, perhaps, if observations of the world indicate that they lead to good ends, worth following. However, it would be necessary to understand why they lead to good ends, rather than simply to blindly accept them.

Of course, not all forms of theism teach blind acceptance, hence the careful use of the term "classical theism." In response to this critique, defenders of theism may draw on other forms of theism, but these forms of theism are often in fact closer to the third form of moral philosophy, yet to be introduced.

Theism has been the dominant paradigm in the Western tradition since the Roman era. However, since the Scientific Revolution, atheism has also won many followers. It is difficult to single out one system of morals, as there are many that fall under the umbrella term "atheist." But without any sort of deity, without anything outside of the laws of physics, how can there be good?

The laws of mathematics demonstrate the difficulty of defining what is "good" in a system entirely based on natural laws. We examine Euclidean (high school) geometry as a case. Every fundamental principle ("axiom") of Euclidean geometry can be found in an appendix of your high school geometry textbook. Every theorem of Euclidean geometry, no matter how complicated, follows by application of these axioms. But can we speak of any Euclidean result as "good" or "bad"? We can speak of geometric results as aesthetically pleasing -- "beautiful" -- but beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it is not a "good" of the geometric system. Because the Euclidean system itself simply exists in nature, there is no "good."

In the same sense, if the universe and everything in it, including us, follows solely by the laws of nature, how can there be good or bad? There can be good or bad in the eye of a beholder of the universe, but we are not beholders of the universe, only elements, in the same way that a triangle is not a beholder of geometry. But according to atheism, such a beholder of the universe does not exist.

There are elements of atheism that may be inspiration for the moral paradigms that we will develop, however. Many atheist traditions teach supremacy of science. We see them as correct in presuming that the scientific method of observation is perhaps the most, if not the only, reliable tool in our kit. To develop a different moral philosophy, we may use this as a foundation for trying to understand ourselves.

Much of what we are as beings can be explained by science. Application of the methods of science can explain the evolution of the universe, according to the known laws of physics and mathematics, from the Big Bang until recently. Science provides explanation for development of galaxies, stars, heavy elements, planets, the formation of life and evolution of species. And yet science seems to singularly fail at explaining human reason. This force, though difficult to define, separates humans from animals. It includes human consciousness (rather than just react in accordance with our instincts, we can actually think and make decisions) and with it the ability to develop morality systems. The ability to engage in conscious thought makes us realize this unique ability.

Not only is reason unexplained by current science, this essay considers human reason unexplainable by science. It may appear faulty to claim something as unexplainable, given how much was not understood until science discovered it. In the days of Kepler, who could have predicted the physics of Einstein? However, there is no presumption of progress in science. Currently science is incapable of answering questions about the origins of morality, and there are not even tools to answer these sorts of questions. Of course if science eventually provides an explanation, we must as good scientists reassess our conclusions. But for now, the state of science leaves us with the hypothesis that reason and its accompanying morality is a supernatural force, a force operating along axes different from those familiar physical axes, a force that allows us to accurately feel purpose in life.

These lines of thought are characteristic of Deism. Deism includes a belief in some sort of God, but in contrast to classical theism, that belief in God is based on application of human reason and science, rather than on divine revelation. Deism leads to a profound moral philosophy that explains and incorporates elements of both classical theism and atheism, and leads to an understanding of morality that integrates with our intuition.

Deism was born and flourished in the Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily in Europe and North America (see the page on Deism from Religious for more information). Many of the founding fathers of the United States considered themselves to be deists, or believed in elements of deism as parts of their personal moral philosophies. Examples include Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Besides a lens from which to understand our own morality, deism offers a useful window into the historical thought behind the founding of our country.

Deism is based upon the foundational principle that reason is a good thing. We view every human as a recipient of the gift of reason, the gift that allows us to come up with our own ideas, to discover what is right and what is wrong. Unlike the force of observation, reason is a force of ideas.

When talking about reason, it makes sense to discuss the ideas of good and bad. The supernatural force that imparted this nature into us had a purpose in giving this gift to us. Since human reason is good, the purpose must be to further the reason of all humankind. Actions for this purpose are right and actions against it are wrong, which is consistent with our natural feeling that actions such as genocide are wrong.

Since our actions can be affected by environmental and genetic factors, all people's actions do not produce equally good results. Nonetheless, in this exposition of Deism, the existence of reason itself is a good thing. Furthermore, reason is binary: all objects either possess reason, or lack it. The binary presence of this gift in a person makes us all equal in a spiritual sense. Whereas environmental and genetic factors are of course responsible for human conduct, they are physical forces and it does not make sense to speak of them as good or bad. They just are. They do not affect the fundamental goodness of human reason. The presence of reason justifies the statement that, yes, in a deep sense, all men are created equal.

The principle that all men are created equal allows some logical development of Deist morality. It becomes easy to explain in more basic terms why the Holocaust was bad. No human has any more inherent worth than any other human, and human reason is a good thing, so we may call murder, let alone the Holocaust, wrong.

There are exceptions to the general rule that the destruction of human reason is wrong. In the case of two of modern history's exemplary evildoers, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden, the destruction of reason is justified. While the inherent capacity to reason, for any being, including these two, is inherently good, in these two cases the goodness is corrupted by experiential and genetic factors, which lead to morally flawed ideas. The danger posed by these individuals necessitated that great effort be made to prevent further commission of evil.

Since exercise of reason is dependent upon information, and in that sense is a science, it is impossible to know for sure that something is wrong, because it is impossible to know if our interpretation of information is correct. This is just as it is impossible to know whether gravity holds in all cases, but the mere fact that every time we drop an object it falls suggests as to what this law of nature really is. In the same way, the mere fact that we have observed so many times the exercise of reason by so many people suggests the fundamental moral law that all men are created equal, as equally reasoning beings. Thus, deism falls in between universalism and its antonym, relativism.

In summary, deism is consistent with our intuition in the cases already examined. It views science as the one central tool that man can trust, and in fact is based on science. Rather than pure universalist, this world view permits the learning and development of our views from new sociological observations, but at the same time it gives us a concrete purpose in life, which atheism may struggle to do. Supplementing the forces of nature, reason includes ideas, causes and, most importantly, purpose. We as people are given a mission in life and the capability to use ideas to extend along this mission.

Deism provides a nuanced answer to our questions about the origins of morality. Morality is like logic in that there are laws of morality -- but just not in the tangible way that we can observe in the everyday sense. The basic rules of logic are testable by observation, and they have held up untold times, although this does not necessarily mean that they hold in every situation. The basic rules of morality are testable using reason, together with information from the real world. The required input, which is subjective, makes reason like language in some sense, but logic dominates. However, it is far more complicated to test moral laws than to test physical laws, which means that moral laws are more likely to be challenged by new observations. We as people are in essence scientists operating not only in the observable physical realms, but also with dimensions in the spiritual realms. Much as we seek to discover laws in the physical realms, we also seek to discover laws in the spiritual realms.

There is thus an obligation to conquer the laws of physics and of reason. Someday, when the state of mankind permits it, we may more fully and totally explore the principles of art and philosophy and mathematics. To me, the latter in particular appeals. Yet due to the current dangers in our world, I see my immediate obligation as standing in defense of the principle that all are created equal, in service of the society that seeks to extend this principle to all mankind. Because we are all created equal, I believe that people the world over will eventually realize this principle given time and access to information. The way forward, the obligation, involves both serving as that shining city on a hill, as well as standing in defense of free societies that need our help. My own journey, leading from theism to atheism to deism, has enabled me to reach a better understanding of the meaning of life and my duty to it, and I have chosen. Many others have of course faced down this choice. Some have reached my same conclusions and can phrase it far more eloquently than I can. In the words of President John Adams:

"...I must study politics and war, so that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy..."

When he wrote this, Zachary Young was a sophomore at Harvard University. He also does research on defense-related topics. He is from New York City.