Here at the Church of the Churchless we aren't big on rules -- especially the religious variety. Morality is an individual decision. If doing something works for you, and it doesn't harm other people, go for it.
Oh, but what about the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or words to that effect. Isn't this a non-religious rule that makes sense?
Sometimes. But not always. Maybe not even usually.
Frans de Waal explains why in his fascinating book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist," which I wrote about recently in A bonobo talks to an atheist about morality and religion.
Here's his take on the Golden Rule.
Much as I like the sound and spirit of the golden rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- it has a fatal flaw. It assumes all people are alike.
To give a rather crude example, if at a conference I follow an attractive woman whom I barely know to her hotel room and jump into her bed uninvited, I can pretty well guess how she'd react. If I explain that I am just doing to her what I would love her to do to me, I'm afraid my appeal to the golden rule won't fly.
Or, let's assume that I knowingly serve pork sausages to a vegan. Liking meat myself, I am just following the golden rule, but the vegan will consider my behavior obnoxious, perhaps even immoral.
...The golden rule has a very limited reach, and it works only if all people are of the same age, sex, and health status with identical preferences and aversions. Since we don't live in such a world, the rule really isn't as useful as it sounds.
It isn't hard to think of many other situations where the golden rule would be a lousy moral guide. For example, a sadomasochist enjoys receiving or inflicting pain. Is it proper for them to go up to a stranger and punch them in the stomach, since this is what they would like done to them?
Of course not. But the Golden Rule says this would be fine, since the person is doing to someone else what they would like done to them.
So a better moral guideline seemingly would be Do unto others what they want done to them.
This, though, also would have exceptions. If someone is contemplating suicide, it wouldn't be good to shoot them in the head. Or if a child wants cake rather than a nutritious dinner, a parent shouldn't go along with that desire.
Bottom line: morality is complicated. Yet it also is simple, according to de Waal.
Almost everybody (psychopaths excepted) has a natural urge to get along with our fellow humans and fit into whatever social group we find ourselves a part of. We share this urge with our fellow mammals, especially primates.
Here's an excerpt from de Waal's book:
The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn't really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don't know how to behave and that someone must tell them.
But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level? What if it is grounded in the emotions, which most of the time escape the neat categorizations that science is fond of?
Since the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom-up approach, I will obviously return to this issue. My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior.
A good place to start is with an acknowledgement of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.