Where do atheists get their morals?

What is morality?

Morality is concerned with right and wrong, or good and bad, actions.  We often refer to morals as things people ought to do.  When we talk about a moral action, we are referring to what ought to be done in a situation.  Because of this morals are contextual, meaning what is considered a good action in one situation could be a bad action in another, for example, taking your friend’s car without permission.  You go to your friend’s house, and they are asleep.  You’re bored and decide to take their car and go have some fun.  You didn’t ask, so that’s technically stealing.  You’re friend could get angry even if no harm came of the action.  However, let’s say your friend is asleep because they are sick, and you are at their house to help take care of them.  While they are asleep, you take their car to get some medicine and food to help nurse them back to good health.  Your friend will likely be grateful that you took such great care of them when they were ill.

Understanding motivation

Abraham Maslow studied what motivates human behavior.  Based on his studies, he developed a needs hierarchy.  His theory proposed that a person’s basic needs must be met before a person is motivated to move up the hierarchy.  So a person is motivated first to secure their basic physiological needs, like food, clothing, and warmth.  Once a person has those things, they move onto ensuring their safety needs.  Once a person feels safe and has their physiological needs covered, they move onto forming relationships and social bonds.

It’s important to talk about what motivates certain actions when talking about morals.  If we’re motivated to feed ourselves, then what’s the best way to accomplish this goal and what’s the morally correct way to accomplish this goal?

We need each other to survive

One of the most interesting things about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is that the first three needs, physiological, safety, and belonging require or concern a group.  Belonging and love most obviously requires more than one individual.  Safety can refer to safety concerning things in our environment like inclement weather, but it can also refer to safety from others that would do us harm.  Both of these goals are best accomplished in groups.  Building shelters are more easily done when people work together.  Creating rules for society and consequences for breaking those rules help to ensure safety.  Physiological needs are also best accomplished when people work together.  Our ancestors who were hunters and gathers understood this concept.  Some members of the group gathered food and figured out ways to store it while others hunted animals for food and clothing.  Farming again is best accomplished through group efforts.  So based on Maslow’s lowest three human needs, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that we need each other to survive and to continue to move up the hierarchy.

What are the effects of an action on myself?

This is certainly a selfish question, but most actions are not purely altruistic.  So this is the starting point for most decisions making:  I want something.  How do I get it?  What will happen once I get it?  If someone wants food, they have several options, each with a consequence that affects the individual making the decision.  Going into the woods and getting your own food to kill an animal takes time and skill.  Buying food requires money or a means with which to bargain.  Stealing food could result in punishment from the community.

What are the effects of an action on others?

Even if we are a truly selfish person, one aspect of our decision making will involve assessing how an action affects the people around us. So let’s look at food again as motivation for an action.  If someone were to hunt and kill their own food, they may be forced to ignore the needs of others that depend on them.  Or they may be able to share the food with others, thus strengthening their community.  If a person buys food, they could also strengthen their community through commerce and trade.  If they choose to steal their food, they could take food from others who also need it and, therefore, weaken their community.  A weak community cannot effectively work together to assure that all of the needs of its members are met.

In short, if an action that I perform makes another person feel unsafe or I take away a basic need, then I have harmed them physically and emotionally.  They in turn cannot help me with my basic needs. Society relies on this reciprocating effect that if ignored, forces everyone down a rung on Maslow’s hierarchy.

What are the long term and short term effects of an action?

Not all decisions are analyzed by looking at short term and long term effects, but it’s often necessary to look at an action in regards to what it will do for you now and the continuing effects of that action into the future.  I like to use drinking as an example for this one.  The short terms effects of drinking alcohol could be a good time.  The next day, however, you could be hungover.  What if drinking becomes a habit?  You could then have many fun nights, but you could also lose money, harm your body, and harm personal relationships.


What constitutes moral and immoral behavior emerges as a result of a person accepting their own interdependency with their community and the reciprocity of their actions.  Atheists don’t kill people when they are pissed off because it’s harmful and attacks our own need to feel safe in an environment.  Fighting and killing does not make people feel safe.  Talking about our conflicts, compromise, and empathy, however, do help to create a safe environment.

Atheists understand that morality is a complex issue that involves human motivations to act and assessing the consequences of those actions.  The right action moves the group up Maslow’s Hierarchy.  I believe that atheists are keenly aware of this and develop their morals along these guidelines as I do.

One thought on “Where do atheists get their morals?

  1. Great post! I just finished reading E.M. Thomas’ book, “Confessions of a Sociopath”, and even though she attends a church and teaches Sunday school, she has no sense of what morality means and cannot empathize with others. She wrote something similar to what you wrote: that to kill or hurt someone else made the world a more dangerous place to live in for herself and those she does care about. To live a “good” life made the world a safer place to live.

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