Why do Good? – A Naturalistic Moral Model

goodboyTheists are right to be concerned about morality. We should all be concerned about morality.  But one of theists biggest shortcomings is when they think their beliefs and worldview give them a corner on either being moral or understanding morality.  In fact, studies shows that theists find atheist to be morally repugnant even before getting to know them.

In my previous post, I suggested six ways to counter the moral disgust of theists toward atheists.  The sixth strategy was to offer a Naturalistic Moral Model to describe how we atheists talk to ourselves about morality without gods, spirits or demons. Each atheist (just as each theist) has a different internal model, of course, but this post describes my naturalistic moral model — the model I use when I think about the important question of “Why do Good“?

CAVEAT: First, let me register a very important caveat  As I written before, I feel what motivates people to do good are rarely the reasons they tell themselves or others, though we are all tempted to think otherwise.  Morality doesn’t work like that.  With that dismissing caveat on the table, here is the three-pronged (post-hoc rationalization) model that my mind uses to answer the question “Why do Good?“:

  1. Outer Happiness and Success: pragmatic survival skill
         “Doing Good”(DG) is a skill. Having the ability to do good can be very useful at times. But Doing Good can often, from a pragmatic perspective, be much more effective than doing bad.
    For example, I use practice a martial art called “Aikido”. Some people are drawn to Aikido because they see it as a gentle method of self-defense when you use an opponent’s energy against the opponent and thus do not initiate violence. They see the techniques themselves as gentle. Such people are very hard to train. It does not take long in Aikido to see how dangerous the techniques can be. And I think the real power in Aikido is to know how to use a technique to be BOTH gentle and harmful. The power of the practitioner is the ability to do both and then the wisdom to know when to use which. It is an effort when teaching macho men or women how to be flexible, soft and gentle. Likewise, it is almost harder to teach a pathology soft people how to be strong, truly protective or damaging. Pathologically soft people may have all sorts of complex psychological reasons (wrapped in ideology) of why they are averse to power, winning and damaging others.
  2. Internal Happiness: the macro affects the micro
         A model I use to understand myself and others is the multiple-self model (see here). Using this model, I feel that as I recognize my other selves and act toward them as: understanding yet discerning; kind but firm; thoughtful but wise; generous but careful … then I will increase the likelihood of my own happiness. Now, I also feel that if I practice these moral skills in my external relationships I will strengthen these habits to improve my internal happiness.
  3. Habituating the Moral Muscle: practice, practice, practice
         Doing good does not often come naturally. Doing Good is a hard skill to establish. So you should practice doing good even at times with others will not notice and in small things so that it becomes a strong, reflexive skill that you can count on when otherwise it would be very hard to will into action. Doing Good is a muscle.

Oooops: I am sure you have noticed that I have not disclosed exactly what actions I feel are “moral” or “good”. Yep, that is a whole other discussion for the distant future. Sorry!🙂

Further reading: See my other Personal Morality posts here.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

6 responses to “Why do Good? – A Naturalistic Moral Model

  1. Hi, Sabio!

    I landed in a very strange situation a few days a go. Someone told me that I am a “lost cause” because I smoke and do not even plan to give up smoking. She did not explain in what sense “lost”, but I felt a kind of moral judgement in the remark. Is it bad, because I ruin my health? Is it even worse because I do not want to quit a bad habit? Is it double worse because I do not consider it a bad habit? Does being a “lost cause” as a smoker make my whole life a “lost cause”? She surely made me stop to think about these things afterwards. (On the spot I just hmmmm-d and the conversation took a totally different direction.)



  2. Thanx, Roni,

    So, are the categories of good or bad useful for you? How would you begin to evaluate something as good. Thanks for your story — it is a very good one to illustrate some points I hope to bring up later.

    Good to hear from you again. Oh yeah — and stop smoking !! 🙂

  3. Nice to be back as a commenter, I have never been away as your reader.

    (I think something is missing or is superfluous in this sentence: “Doing good does not come often come naturally.”)

    I am still working on my “Buddhism in Hungary” research. One outcome so far is a map of stupas, temples, meditation centers etc, in Hungary: http://goo.gl/maps/m9niK

    Looking forward to reading more on the possible categories and their advantages and disadvantages, I do not think of myself as someone concerned about right or wrong. I handle situations more like “Does/Will this make me feel good?” and “Does/Will this make others involved in the situation feel good?. Probably this is close to the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness in this sutta ( http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.019.olen.html ) about of the acrobats: taking care of each other by being mindful — and in this case, mindfulness for me means nothing more (and nothing less) than paying attention to the needs (safety, wellbeing, ease) of others and the capacities and limitations of myself (concerning feeling safe. at ease in the given situation), I do not know if I make sense, I can try to explain it in another way if I don’t.🙂


  4. Sabio, this is the best discussion of morality that I’ve seen.

    I think that morality is always partly inspired by identifying with other people, seeing ourselves as one of them, whether we verbalize that or not.

    I see the ultimate inspiration and foundation for morality as love at its best: Love of truth, love of justice, love of humanity, love of nature, at their uplifting, nurturing, empowering best. I see all kinds of love at its best as part of one love, and I see that love as the ultimate inspiration and foundation for morality. The ultimate test of a moral code is how well it serves that love.

  5. Thanks for addressing this issue; it is a very important one. As you noted in your last post, the Euthyphro dilemma shows that either morality is arbitrary (something is moral because God says so) or morality is independent of God (something is moral so God commands it). While the atheist will likely recognize that morality does not seem arbitrary — that rape could never be good — the committed theist might maintain that yes, morality is arbitrary. So the moral atheist must offer a theory for why morality is not arbitrary, which he can do by invoking supervenience relations.

    Roughly, we recognize that for all cases if two events are completely the same in their non-moral properties, then they will be the same in their moral properties. We know this to be true empirically, and a priori (for those of us who like rationalism). This suggests a strong nomological global supervenience relation between subvening non-moral properties and their supervening moral properties. In other words, the lower level non-moral properties determine, in a law like fashion, the realization of moral properties.

    If what is morally good is good because God says so, then the theist might maintain that these nomological supervenience relations are caused by God. If this is true, then God could decide at any moment that rape is actually good, and we would immediately perceive through our moral sensibility that rape is now good. Is this possible? I don’t think so. The non-moral properties that cause rape to be morally wrong would still be there, and it just seems logically impossible that those properties could be good. The theist could dig in their heels and say, “no, that is possible”. But that view seems absurd and repulsive, and leaves the atheistic moralist looking a lot better than the theist, who is now committed to saying that it is logically possible that rape could be morally good.

  6. Ooops, late on responding here:

    Thank you!


    Sorry, not sure I followed that.
    That is why I don’t do philosophy any more.
    Too painful.

    Of course, my explanation may have been equally hard to understand for some people

    And I didn’t here an “I agree with…” or “I disagree with …” so I was stuck trying to figure out what you were saying. No my cup of jargon, I’m afraid. Sorry.

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