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Defining Morality

By Kamal Karimi

I believe that there is no accurate way to determine what is moral and what is not. Beliefs are different from person to person; one person may be less moral because one person’s beliefs differ from others. While morality — such as what is not moral — is still debated among many people and even philosophers, I believe it is wrong to consider some morality as transcendent morality.

Human nature evolved, and this includes human behavior and what we categorize as moral. Human beings are social creatures, and through evolution and living together and cooperation, some morals become universal, like reciprocal altruism and the punishment of free-riders. Over time, we have learned better the structure of the world. Cooperation developed a “process,” and there is a simple rule that exists to promote cooperation.

The rules evolved because they were simple and needed for us to evolve. The history of evolution has seen the evolution of cooperation on several levels, such as the cooperation between chromosomes and genes and the cooperation of cells and our bodies. That is the cooperation of individual creatures in our society. The morality of society evolved from the cooperation of people and society’s development of human rights and justice. It is because of cooperation and not faith — or God and religion — that morality exists.

Most people believe that transcendent morality is morality and the rules that came from religion. But when we look at the world, there are thousands of religions, with great differences among them, which can even be antagonistic with one another. There is no way to convince a Hindu to stop viewing cows as sacred. In Christianity drinking wine is acceptable, but in Islam, it is forbidden. Moreover, the rules are absolute and in no way able to be changed. In some groups, people leave their religious community or try to deemphasize extreme rules, but this may never be accepted by traditional, conservative religious leaders.


I grow up in a conservative Muslim family in Iran, where my father is an imam. Most parts of morality were absolute for me. There were no questions, and no judgment and no doubt about anything related to the Quran or Muhammad.

I was 17 when the religious government sentenced me to death because I joined a political party. I was accused of going against God and his Prophet which we know ourselves to be Muslim. At this time, I thought it was because they were Shia and don’t like Sunnis (my sect), and they felt I was against God and his prophet Mohammed. I never doubted or did anything against him. When I went to prison, I realized that it was not about being Sunni.

Then I was transferred to a big prison 100 miles from my house. I met many people with different political views, such as democrats, socialists, radical Muslims and communists. I realized that out there is something different from my views about religion and morality. I saw an imam and a communist person, both of whom are humans. Before this experience, I imagined communists as infidels and polluted people. I became friends with a communist and I ate a meal with him, which led to a warning from my friends that this was not acceptable in our religion.

I started to criticize and question my religion, and especially the Prophet of Islam. I asked myself why Mohammed should marry a nine-year-old child when he was 52, and why he he killed 600 Jewish men for no reason.

I left Islam during this time. I thought Mohammed was a saint and his behavior was an example of transcendent morality, but after I reviewed things critically, I left Islam when I was 21. I told my father, and he was angry, but my father is a kind man. I told him, “You believe all Quran rules are transcendent morality and do not doubt it,” and his answer was “Yeah.” I asked, “Am I a bad man?” His answer was no, and he knew that the rule was that I should be killed. I asked, “Do you want someone to kill me because I just refused the religion?” “No” was his answer, but he said that this was God’s order. I understood then that there is no transcendent morality.

Morality for me is the rule of the land, and it comes from the cooperation of people. People can be good and moral without religion. Because many religions have their own view of morality, if one religious group gets too much power and rules a society, this will lead to a dangerous example, as in Iran. Transcendent morality exists separate from organized religion, and like in Maine’s constitution, rules are “made on the floor.”

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