04
Jan
10

Where do you get the idea that killing is wrong?

I’m back from our mini New Year’s vacation, and I’ve returned to find a smattering of new comments on my posts, most of them with some great questions to answer. Thanks to all for the comments!

I’m planning to answer most of the questions I get in new posts, rather than responding in comments, to make them more visible, and possibly inspire more discussion from others.

This question comes from DG Pomerhn Jr., who is waving his hand frantically from the back of the room:

Oh, oh, oh!! Question, please!

Where do you get the idea that killing (with the exception of self-defense) is wrong?

Darwinian evolution says that we should eliminate the competition – so we don’t have this intrinsically inside ourselves…so where does the moral concept come from…hmmm?

Interested in your answer. I agree with you, about not killing others over differences of belief, by the way. Good one on you!

Thanks for the question, DG. I’d like to start by clearing up something you’ve said that is untrue, and commonly heard in discussions about Darwin and evolution: Darwinian evolution does not say that we should eliminate the competition. This is a common misunderstanding of natural selection and the phrase “survival of the fittest” (which itself is something that someone else used to inaccurately describe natural selection – see more here). Rather, it said that certain traits that help a species survive and reproduce will become more common in that species over time.

The image of bigger and stronger varieties of cavemen clubbing their weaker ancestors and dragging their women off by the hair is nowhere near an accurate representation of natural selection (though it was something I frequently saw happen first-hand in high school). For a much better example of what evolution says about selection, read more about Darwin’s finches.

Now, on to your question -Where do I get the idea that killing (with the exception of self-defense) is wrong?

Initially, I received the idea from my parents. They taught me a very strong sense of right and wrong that included not taking the life of another. They in turn learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents, and so on through my family’s history.

Most, if not all, of my ancestors were religious, and I would probably go far enough to say that all of those were Christian. All of them likely began with religious reasons for recognizing this rule, as did I:  Kill someone, and you’ll go to Hell and burn forever (unless you’re forgiven).

But when I look past the religious reasons for not killing others, I can see why we’ve developed this rule as a species. Killing others brings misery – it saddens those who suffer the loss of a loved one, it breaks up families, and it even hurts societies when it removes productive members from them. When I thought about how early human societies were formed, and how those that developed firm rules about murder as a way to help those societies survive, I saw the bigger picture.

Observation shows us that societies that work together and abstain from slaughtering each other are more productive, and benefit the individuals much more. One classic example is the piranha, schools of which will ravenously devour every living thing in sight, except for their fellow piranha.  Humans have developed this philosophy to a much higher degree.

When I look at religious reasons for abstaining from murder, however, I find that there are a lot of exceptions permitted. Some religions permit the murder of nonbelievers, unbelievers, witches, and homosexuals. Some even promote the murder of specific societies or races. These rules appear in their holy books for all to see. (You can see a few examples for yourself here, here, and here.)

I reject every one of these exceptions. The fact is, most people living in our society today reject them as well, believer and nonbeliever alike, and many of those have no idea that these exceptions are even in their holy book. They’ve come to the same conclusion, beyond any religious belief, that these exceptions bring misery, break up families, and hurt societies.

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1 Response to “Where do you get the idea that killing is wrong?”


  1. 1 skipper
    May 26, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Hi there!

    Allow me to add a comment. I will start by sharing something that happened to me in my early childhood. I was not older than maybe 5 then. My sisters and I were hanging out at the front of our house, where there used to be a store room. We discovered a sound coming from amongst the faggots piled up in the store room (I know, in England and America you keep them in closets). It was a tiny kitten trapped amongst the piles of firewood. My oldest sister suggested we free it up. So armed with a firewood each, we tried to poke at the kitten, in an attempt to dislodge the piece of wood that had the kitten pinned down. After a while of doing this, my sister declared the kitten had died, crushed by the faggots we were poking at it. I was shocked and saddened. I cried upon realising the fact that I caused the death of an innocent life; it haunted me for many days.

    Back to the subject matter. As a 5 year old, I wasn’t exposed to any form of moral or religious education (actually, I wasn’t exposed to any form of education back then, but that’s another story). So how did the 5 year old me know it was wrong to kill? I believe that the Golden Rule, the rule of reciprocity, is an in-built quality of all humans. We do not need a religion or even moral education to tell us it is intrinsically wrong to inflict pain on another being. Evolution has instilled in us this principle. Humans are gregarious animals; we need each other for survival. Before we engage in killing, we ask ourselves, “Would we like this person to do the same to us?” The answer is “no”. So we know we shouldn’t kill this person.

    We just know we should respect another person’s life if we wish them to respect ours.


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I am an atheist, a person who does not believe in the existence of any gods.

Many people don't know a lot about atheists, and have questions about them. In this blog, I do my best to answer them, to help build an understanding between atheists and theists.

Do you have a question? You can post it in the comments to any of my blog entries, and I will do my best to answer it in a new entry.


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