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Do you have a conscience? If so, where does it come from? Do you believe in universal reciprocity? (Why/why not?)

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133I do indeed, as do all sentient beings, I suspect, if their neurological circuits are running fine (sociopaths are examples of people malfunctioning in this regard, typically weak feedback loops with the amygdala, our ancient reptile brain core that has ended up as a component of our moral gatekeeping system). There appear to be at least two brain systems involved in moral reasoning (a snap judgment emotional one, and a more reflective rational one). There may be others, but the two that are known definitely compete and can result in considerable ambivalence on many moral questions. Thus having a conscience is what happens when you are aware of your own actions, and have to decide whether those actions are good or bad — good or bad are obviously philosophical in nature, and may be thought of as part of the software that can run on our brain hardware.

I believe that the fundamental core of all moral reasoning is fairness, and that is part and parcel with absolute and reciprocity, embodied in the classic Golden Rule that is found all across human cultures: Do Not Do Unto Others What You Wouldn’t Want To Be Done Unto You. Such rules must apply to all sentient beings everywhere and at any time, even ones built on silicon residing in some distant galaxy. Since we do not as yet have any examples of nonhuman intelligences with whom we can exchange moral working scripts, it is not known to what extent our moral perceptions are tinted by our specific evolutionary hardware. But I do not believe that anyone who operates at the full self-aware level can hold to a moral framework where people are not treated equally: it’s OK for me to oppress or disembowel you, but you aren’t morally entitled to do the same to me.  Though people throughout history have certainly tried — hypocrisy, as Oscar Wilde once quipped, is the homage vice pays to virtue.

Now a person could be logically reciprocal if they said, yes, if you can do unto me before I can do unto you, that’s fine — we’re all playing on the same dog eat dog field at least. But that would miss the bigger issue of whether good actions should be the primary floor for that reciprocity. It is my belief that a functioning conscience requires both levels to be up and in good working order, otherwise you have a frightful mess, dogs and cats living together.

All this is independent of whether the “good” has been (or even can) be mandated by supernatural deities, or are intrinsic properties of moral reasoning, like 1+1=2 whether you like it or not. This is, of course, a big (and ultimately undecidable) debate of long standing, going back at least to Plato, and as an undecidable issue (more on that in my eventual NOMA posting) it will NEVER go away as a subject of dinner table arguments.


1 Comment

  1. Rom 2:14    For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,Rom 2:15    in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,Rom 2:16    on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

    The Bible teaches that God created man, and that He created man in His image, which places us much higher than animals, in that we do have a conscience, telling us what is right and what is wrong. He says that our own consciences will be sufficient, when confronted on that day when every unbeliever stands before His throne on that final judgement day, to convict them of their sin.

    I realize that not all will believe this and that is their right, but it is certainly worth the consideration of thinking people.

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